Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 16- to 20-year olds, according to most recent data (2014) from the National Center for Health Statistics. Immaturity and lack of driving experience are the two main factors leading to the high crash rate among teens. 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.
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. North Dakota’s law, the last to be enacted, went into effect January 1, 2012.
Graduated Drivers License Programs: Young drivers account for a disproportionate number of motor vehicle crashes. In order to control this problem, each state has now adapted one or more element of a graduated drivers license (GDL) system, which 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 as defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 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, seatbelt 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).
Effectiveness of Graduated Drivers License (GDL) programs: Studies dating back to the late 1990s attribute reductions in teen crash deaths to GDL programs. Some of the latest studies showed the following:
Florida was the first state to adopt a GDL program in 1996. GDLs have also 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, a 2002 study conducted in Nova Scotia, concluded that crash reductions among young beginning drivers occur 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 reductions. For beginning drivers who got their learners permit at 16-or 17-years old, crashes declined 51 percent. During the intermediate stage, when drivers are allowed to 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.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) said in May 2012 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 says 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 are 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.
Effects of Graduated Drivers License (GDL) restrictions: 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 May 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.
According to a March 2008 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, when there are multiple passengers in vehicles driven by teen drivers, the crash risk is three to five times greater than when driving alone. The risk is 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.
A 2008 study conducted by former Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) chief scientist Allan Williams found that raising the age at which drivers are licensed would save lives. The study, highlighted in a September 2008 report by the IIHS, focused on driving age and rules in different countries. The study found that raising the driving age would substantially reduce crashes involving teenage drivers in the United States, where most states permit driving at about age 16. New Jersey is the only state in which drivers have to be 17 to get a license.
Cellphones: Safety experts say that using a cellphone while driving is a major distraction and is a significant factor in crashes (see Distracted Driving paper).
Fifteen states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island (effective June 2018), Vermont, Washington state, West Virginia—and the District of Columbia have a law banning the use of hand-held cellphones behind the wheel for all drivers. The use of all cellphones by novice drivers is restricted in 38 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Washington State was the first state to ban the practice of “texting” with a cellphone while driving. Text messaging is banned for all drivers in 47 states and the District of Columbia. Novice drivers are specifically banned from texting in two states, Missouri and Texas. (The Texas texting ban will include all drivers on September 1, 2017.) Arizona and Wyoming have no texting bans for any drivers. (See chart below: State Young Driver Laws.)
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) measures observed data on driver electronic devise use. The 2015 survey found that 3.8 percent of all passenger vehicle drivers held cellphones to their ears. The rate was highest for drivers age 16 to 24—4.6 percent. The survey also showed that 2.2 percent of all drivers visibly manipulated handheld devices while driving. The rate for drivers age 16 to 24 was 4.9 percent, highest for all age groups.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey, released in June 2014, shows that about 41.4 percent of high school students reported that they texted or emailed from behind the wheel at least once during the previous 30 days. The highest rate of texting or emailing while driving, 61.3 percent, was among teens in South Dakota. The lowest rate, 32.3 percent, was among teens in Massachusetts. The survey is conducted every two years, but this year was the first time the 13,000 participants were asked about texting and emailing while driving.
In March 2012 the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released “Distracted Driving Among Newly Licensed Teen Drivers,” an in-car video study that found that teenage girls are twice as likely as teenage boys to use cellphones and other electronic devices while driving. The study also found that teenage female drivers were almost 10 percent more likely to engage in other distracted behaviors such as reaching for an object (nearly 50 percent more likely than males) and eating or drinking (almost 25 percent more likely). By contrast teenage male drivers were about twice as likely to turn around in their seats and were also more likely to communicate with people outside of the vehicle.
Speeding: According to NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, among drivers involved in fatal crashes, young males are the most likely to be speeding. In 2014, 36 percent of 15 to 20-year old male drivers who were involved in fatal crashes were speeding at the time of the crash, compared to 20 percent of female drivers of the same age group.
Drunk driving: Underage drinking remains a factor in teenage highway fatalities. Twenty-one percent of drivers ages 15 to 20 who were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2015 were alcohol-impaired, which is defined by a blood alcohol content of 0.08 grams per deciliter or higher, according to NHTSA. This proportion was higher at 26 percent in 2006. 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 537 lives were saved by the minimum drinking age laws in 2015. 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 CDC said that in 2011, 10.3 percent of high school students age 16 and older reported drinking and driving in the previous 30 days, compared with 22.3 percent in 1991. The agency said the 54 percent decline was the result of stricter drunk driving laws and laws that restrict the hours teens can drive, along with a decline in driving itself, possibly due to the economy and higher gasoline prices. However, despite the decrease, nearly a million high school students admitted they consumed alcohol before driving in 2011.
According to NHTSA, drivers are less likely to use restraints when they have been drinking. In 2014, 47 percent of the young drivers of passenger vehicles involved in fatal crashes who had been drinking were unrestrained. Of the young drivers who had been drinking and were killed in crashes, 64 percent were unrestrained. In comparison, 43 percent of the non-drinking young drivers killed were unrestrained.
In March 2016 a new law was enacted in South Dakota that specifies that people under the age of 21 may not be prosecuted for any misdemeanor offense of underage drinking, having an open container of alcohol or public intoxication if the person contacts law enforcement or emergency medical services personnel. In addition the person must report a need for medical assistance due to alcohol consumption and cooperate with law enforcement or medical personnel.
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 2015 survey found that 86.3 percent of passenger vehicle occupants age 16 to 24 used seat belts, slightly higher than in 2014 (84.2 percent). Seatbelt usage was lowest in this age group.
Teenagers are less likely to wear safety belts even when their parents do, according to a survey conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) released in 2002. The report found that 46 percent of the teenagers who were dropped off at school by their parents were not wearing safety belts and in 8 percent of cases teens were using safety belts while the adult driver was not. The survey, conducted at 12 high schools in Connecticut and Massachusetts, focused on four groups: teen drivers, teen passengers in vehicles with teen drivers, teen passengers with adult drivers and adult drivers.
Distracted driving: According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, in 2015, about 9 percent of all 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, 19 percent were distracted by the use of cellphones at the time of the crash.
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 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.
Auto makers and others also offer tools for parents to monitor their children’s driving. Ford’s MyKey system allows a parent to program a car key to limit the top speed of a car and the audio volume and a feature that sends cellphone calls to voice mail and blocks text alerts. Infiniti’s Connection can set geographic limits that alert the parent when a boundary is crossed; GM’s OnStar has a service that lets vehicle owners see the location of their vehicle on an online map and get alerts on its location at specified times. 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.
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