Background On: Teen drivers


Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teens. Immaturity and lack of driving experience are the two main factors leading to the high crash rate among young people ages 15-19. Teens’ lack of experience affects their recognition of and response to hazardous situations and results in dangerous practices such as speeding and tailgating.

Other major contributing factors to the higher crash risk of young drivers are night driving and teen passengers. Teenagers are involved in more motor vehicle crashes late in the day and at night than at other times of the day. Teens also have a greater chance of getting involved in an accident if other teens are present in the vehicle, according to research from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm.  Among drivers involved in fatal crashes, young males are the most likely to be speeding according to NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis.

Graduated drivers license (GDL) laws, which include a three-phase program that allows teen drivers to develop more mature driving attitudes and gain experience behind the wheel, have been successful in reducing teen motor vehicle accidents. In 1996 Florida became the first state to enact a GDL law. Every state now has a GDL law.

Graduated Drivers License (GDL) Laws

History:  To control the problem of young drivers accounting for a disproportionate number of motor vehicle crashes, each state has adopted one or more elements of a graduated drivers license (GDL) system. Graduated licensing requires a more rigorous learning period before granting young people between the ages of 15 and 18 a drivers license with full privileges. Graduated licensing consists of three stages. Stage 1 (learners permit) requirements and recommendations include a vision test, a road knowledge test, driving accompanied by a licensed adult, seat belt use by all vehicle occupants, a zero BAC level, and six months with no crashes or convictions for traffic violations. Stage 2 (intermediate license) includes the completion of Stage 1, a behind-the-wheel road test, advanced driver education training, driving accompanied by a licensed adult at night, and 12 consecutive months with no crashes or convictions for traffic offenses before reaching Stage 3 (full license).

Impact of Graduated Drivers License Laws: Studies dating back to the late 1990s attribute reductions in teen crash deaths to GDL programs. GDLs had reduced deaths among teenage drivers in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, where versions of the system exist. The first long-term study to investigate the benefits of each licensing stage was conducted in 2002 in Nova Scotia. It concluded that GDLs led to crash reduction among young beginning drivers in both the learner and intermediate stages. The study, “Specific and Long-term Effects of Nova Scotia’s Graduated Licensing Program,” marks the first six months of the learner stage as the most significant period of crash reduction. For beginning drivers who got their learners permit at 16-or 17-years old, crashes declined 51 percent in the learner stage. During the intermediate stage, when drivers can drive unsupervised except late at night, crashes were reduced by 9 percent in the first year and 11 percent in the second year. Crash rates increased by 4 percent, however, during the first year after the drivers graduated to full license status. Nova Scotia’s GDL program was adopted in 1994, before many U.S. states began adopting the system.

A 2012 study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that the death rate fell 68 percent for 16-year old drivers from 1996 to 2010. Among older teenagers the death rate fell 59 percent for 17-year olds, and 52 percent and 47 percent for 18- and 19-year olds, respectively, during the same period. The IIHS attributes the declines to the adoption of GDL laws and said that if every state adopted all five of the toughest laws that it had identified, about 500 lives could be saved and 9,500 collisions prevented each year. The five most effective laws it identified were a minimum permit age of 16, a minimum intermediate license age of 17, at least 65 hours of supervised practice driving, restrictions on night driving that begin at 8 pm and banning all teen passengers.

Restrictions on passengers of teen drivers

Research shows that when teenage drivers transport teen passengers there is a greatly increased crash risk. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released a report in October 2012 that showed that the risk of 16- or 17-year old drivers being killed in a crash increases with each additional teenage passenger in the vehicle. The risk increases 44 percent with one passenger; it doubles with two passengers and quadruples with three or more passengers. The study analyzed crash data and the number of miles driven by 16- and 17-year olds.

Other studies examined the issue of passengers of teenage drivers. A March 2008 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report found that when there were multiple passengers in vehicles driven by teen drivers, the crash risk was three to five times greater than when driving alone; the risk was greatest for the youngest drivers (age 16 and 17). In California, Massachusetts and Virginia passenger restrictions have reduced crashes among 16-year-old drivers. Crash involvement per 1,000 16-year-old drivers fell from 1.07 to 0.85 in California after passenger restrictions were passed. The reduction was from 0.88 to 0.61 in Massachusetts and from 1.41 to 1.10 in Virginia. Earlier studies by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the National Institutes of Health also found that restricting passengers lowered the numbers of crashes and other behaviors such as speeding.

Raising the driving age

In most countries 18 is the minimum age at which a person may obtain a driver's license. In the United States most states permit unsupervised driving at age 16.  A study highlighted in a September 2008 report by the IIHS found that raising the age at which drivers are licensed would save lives. The study focused on driving age and rules in different countries and found that raising the driving age would substantially reduce crashes involving teenage drivers in the United States.

Older Teenagers

A 2017 Liberty Mutual study found that older teenagers are more likely to engage in dangerous behaviors than the youngest drivers. The study surveyed almost 3,000 high school students and showed that seventy-five percent of high school seniors felt confident in their driving abilities after driving for a few years, and 71 percent used a phone while driving.  Over half of seniors reported having a car accident or a near miss, compared with 34 percent of high school sophomores. Moreover, 47 percent of seniors drove with three or more passengers in their vehicle, compared with 31 percent of sophomores, and 40 percent of seniors said they changed music using a phone or app, compared with 26 percent of sophomores. Thirty-five percent of seniors admitted to speeding compared with 18 percent of sophomores.

Teen Drivers and Cellphones

Safety experts say that using a cellphone while driving is a major distraction and is a significant factor in crashes for drivers of all ages (see Distracted Driving). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) measures observed data on driver electronic devise use. The 2016 survey found that 3.3 percent of all passenger vehicle drivers held cellphones to their ears. The rate was highest for drivers age 16 to 24—4.2 percent. The survey also showed that 2.1 percent of all drivers visibly manipulated handheld devices while driving.  The rate for drivers age 16 to 24 was 4.5 percent, highest for all age groups.

Studies have demonstrated the pervasiveness of cellphone use among younger drivers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s June 2016 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey shows that in 2015 about 41.5 percent of high school students said they texted or emailed while behind the wheel at least once during the previous 30 days, about the same as in 2013. The highest rate of texting or emailing while driving, 63.2 percent, was among teens in South Dakota. The lowest rate, 26.1 percent, was among teens in Maryland. The survey is conducted every two years. Among the twelve large urban school districts surveyed, Broward County, FL had the highest percentage, at 38.7 percent and New York City, NY had the lowest, at 14.1 percent. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s 2012 in-car video study, found that teenage girls are twice as likely as teenage boys to use cellphones and other electronic devices while driving.

Over a dozen states ban the use of hand-held cellphones behind the wheel for all drivers. The use of all cellphones by novice drivers is restricted in more than three dozen states, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Text messaging is banned for all drivers in virtually all states and the District of Columbia; novice drivers are specifically banned from texting in Missouri, (see chart: State Young Driver Laws.)

Teen drivers and alcohol-impaired driving

Underage drinking remains a factor in teenage highway fatalities, according to NHTSA. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that numerous studies since the 1970s show that when the drinking age is lowered, more people die in crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports  that since 1975 about 30,860 lives have been saved by these laws. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study in October 2012 that showed that the percentage of young drivers who drink and drive has been reduced by half in two decades. The agency said the 54 percent decline was the result of stricter alcohol-impaired driving laws, laws that restrict the hours teens can drive, and a decline in driving itself, possibly related to the recession and higher gasoline prices at the time. However, despite the decrease, nearly a million high school students admitted they consumed alcohol before driving in 2011. In addition, according to NHTSA, drivers are less likely to use restraints when they have been drinking.

Teen drivers and seatbelt use

­Seatbelt Use: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), tracks seatbelt use based on the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS), which observes occupants driving through intersections controlled by stop signs or stop lights. The 2016 survey found that seatbelt usage was lowest in the 16-to-24 year-old age group.

Distracted driving: According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, in 2015, about one in ten drivers 15 to 19 years old involved in fatal crashes were distracted at the time of the crash. In 2014, among the distracted drivers 15 to 19 years old, about one in five were distracted by the use of cellphones at the time of the crash.

Insurer Initiatives

Auto insurance premium discounts: Rates for auto insurance for teenage drivers are always higher than for other drivers because as a group they pose a higher risk of accidents than more experienced drivers. Adding a teenager to an insurance policy can mean a 50 percent or even a 100 percent increase in the parents’ insurance premium. Some insurance companies offer discounts for students with good grades. The Good Student Discount is generally available to students who have a grade point average of a B or higher. Many companies offer programs that foster safe driving habits, such as online safety courses for young drivers and parents, contracts between young drivers and parents, educational videos and practice driving logs.

Insurance companies are also helping to reduce the number of accidents involving teen drivers by subsidizing the cost of electronic monitoring devices that parents can install in their cars to monitor the way teens drive and by offering discounts to policyholders with teens who use these devices.

The American Family Insurance Company has supplied at least 2,000 families with a DriveCam video camera that alerts parents when a teen driver makes a driving error. The program includes discounts for families that use the camera, which is free for the first year. The camera is operated by an independent company that provides weekly reports for parents.

21st Century (Zurich) and Safeco Insurance (Liberty Mutual) use global positioning systems (GPS) to monitor teen drivers. 21st Century’s free GPS works with a program that allows parents to be alerted by email or text message if their children exceed preset boundaries on speeding, distance or time. Safeco’s GPS lets parents monitor their teen drivers in real time.

Progressive’s MyRate program, which can be used by all drivers, uses a black box to record speed, braking, time of day and distance driven. The information is evaluated for discounts.

Allstate offers Star Driver, a smartphone app that has a driving agreement between young drivers and parents that sets parameters for when, where and how fast the teen is allowed to drive, with alerts for parents of teens who overstep these parameters.

Charts and graphs


State Young Driver Laws (1)

(As of October 2017)

  Graduated licensing  
     Intermediate phase  
State Learners permit required
for a minimum period
Restrictions on
night driving (2)
restrictions (3)
Driver may not operate
a cellphone in learner
and/or intermediate stages (4)
Alabama 6 months X X Talk
Alaska 6 months X X  
Arizona 6 months X X Talk*
Arkansas 6 months X X Talk
California 6 months X X Talk
Colorado 12 months X X Talk
Connecticut 6 months X X Talk
Delaware 6 months X X Talk
D.C. 6 months X X Talk
Florida 12 months X    
Georgia 12 months X X Talk
Hawaii 6 months X X Talk
Idaho 6 months X X  
Illinois 9 months X X Talk
Indiana 6 months X X Talk
Iowa 12 months X   Talk
Kansas 12 months X X Talk
Kentucky 6 months X X Talk
Louisiana 6 months X X Talk
Maine 6 months X X Talk
Maryland 9 months X X Talk
Massachusetts 6 months X X Talk
Michigan 6 months X X Talk
Minnesota 6 months X X Talk
Mississippi 12 months X    
Missouri 6 months X X Text
Montana 6 months X X  
Nebraska 6 months X X Talk
Nevada 6 months X X  
New Hampshire none (5) X X Talk
New Jersey 6 months X X Talk
New Mexico 6 months X X Talk
New York 6 months X X  
North Carolina 12 months X X Talk
North Dakota 6-12 months (6) X   Talk
Ohio 6 months X X Talk
Oklahoma 6 months X X Talk (7)
Oregon 6 months X X Talk
Pennsylvania 6 months X X  
Rhode Island 6 months X X  
South Carolina 6 months X X  
South Dakota 6 months X   Talk
Tennessee 6 months X X Talk
Texas 6 months X X Talk, text
Utah 6 months X X Talk
Vermont  12 months   X Talk
Virginia 9 months X X Talk
Washington 6 months X X Talk
West Virginia 6 months X X Talk
Wisconsin 6 months X X Talk
Wyoming 10 days X X  

(1) Designed to aid young novice drivers between the ages of 15 and 18 gain driving experience. To date they apply only to drivers under the age of 18. All states have lower blood alcohol content laws for under-21 drivers which range from none to 0.02 percent, in contrast with 0.08 percent for drivers over the age of 21 in all states. Includes graduated licensing as defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Every state has a graduated licensing law.
(2) Intermediate stage; varies by state with regard to age of driver, night hours that driving is restricted, who must accompany driver during night hours and how long and what stage the restrictions are lifted. Exceptions may be made for work, school or religious activities and emergencies.
(3) Intermediate stage; limits the number of teenage passengers a young driver may have in the vehicle.
(4) Only includes states with restrictions on the use of cellphones for talking or texting by young drivers. Does not reference cellphone laws such as bans on handheld cellphones that apply to all drivers in some states.
(5) New Hampshire does not issue learners permits.
(6) Under age 16: 12 months; 16-18: 6 months.
(7) Banned for non-life threatening purposes.

*Effective June 30, 2018.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Drivers In Motor Vehicle Crashes By Age, 2015

Age group Number of
licensed drivers
Percent of
Drivers in
fatal crashes
rate (1)
Drivers in
all crashes
rate (1)
16 to 20 11,814,959 5.4% 4,214 35.86 1,381,000 11,755
21 to 24 14,406,138 6.6 4,942 34.30 1,261,000 8,751
25 to 34 38,385,563 17.6 9,860 25.69 2,435,000 6,343
35 to 44 36,194,823 16.6 7,675 21.20 1,897,000 5,240
45 to 54 39,475,801 18.1 7,852 19.89 1,694,000 4,291
55 to 64 37,715,222 17.3 6,453 17.11 1,366,000 3,622
65 to 74 25,020,638 11.5 3,767 15.06 705,000 2,818
Over 74 15,071,321 6.9 2,723 18.07 378,000 2,505
Total 218,084,465 100.0% 48,613 (2) 22.29 11,251,000 (2) 5,159

(1) Per 100,000 licensed drivers.
(2) Includes drivers under the age of 16 and of unknown age.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Federal Highway Administration.

View Archived Tables

Motor Vehicle Deaths Per 100,000 Persons By Age, 2015

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

View Archived Graphs

Percent Of Alcohol-Impaired Drivers Involved In Fatal Crashes By Age, 2007 And 2016 (1)

Age 2007 2016 Point change
16 to 20 18% 15% -3 pts.
21 to 24 34 26 -8
25 to 34 29 27 -2
35 to 44 25 22 -3
45 to 54 20 19 -1
55 to 64 12 14 2
65 to 74 7 9 2
Over 74 4 5 1

(1) Alcohol-impaired driving crashes are crashes that involve at least one driver or a motorcycle operator with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or above, the legal definition of alcohol-impaired driving.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

View Archived Tables

Additional resources:

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (U.S. Department of Transportation)

Centers for Disease Control, Teen Drivers Fact Sheet


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Facts + Statistics: Teen drivers
Facts + Statistics: Distracted driving