Chapter 2  Table of Contents

Research Agenda
For Younger Drivers

The primary safety issues related to drivers between the ages of 15 and 24 are inexperience, immaturity, and risk taking. Education and training have achieved limited demonstrated success in reducing the unsafe driving behaviors of young drivers. The apparent disregard for one's own personal safety appears to be a defining element of youth.

Effective methods to restrain impulsive, risky behaviors have traditionally concentrated on law enforcement, license restriction or denial, or other aversive controls. The effectiveness of these approaches is limited by the resources communities can devote to them.

The Agency's research and programmatic activities for younger drivers are based on the analyses of safety problems posed by this age group. The diversity of current research directions reflects the diversity of causes of and corrections for younger drivers' safety problems. This chapter includes a brief description of the Agency's previous research and programmatic activities and specifies the direction of future research on younger drivers. These activities are, for the most part, explorations of new approaches to dealing with younger driver problems. Although they are not as well defined as activities in a more mature research program, they hold tremendous potential for dealing with the safety problems of younger drivers.



Summary of Prior Research
Historically, NHTSA has pursued a multi-faceted approach towards reducing crashes among younger drivers. During the last twelve years, however, NHTSA's behavioral research activities related to younger drivers have focused almost exclusively upon alcohol and under-age drinking, with some attention to occupant-protection issues. The course of this effort is currently expanding to include many broader issues, including cultural norms, peer influence, and risk-taking attitudes.

In the past, the Agency has worked to improve highway safety among this population through institutional actions (e.g., education and training, licensing procedures, enforcement, and adjudication) based on increased understanding of individual beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge supporting highway safety. NHTSA has developed technical knowledge and materials to support these actions, as well as methods for disseminating the information and providing technical support to safety professionals and others.

The following paragraphs highlight the most significant of these activities.


Driver Education One of NHTSA's earliest objectives was improving the education and training of new drivers. Seminal studies identified behaviors necessary to operate a passenger car, and assessed how critical each behavior was to driving. The Agency used this information to develop two model high-school driver-education curricula, which NHTSA implemented in the 1970's.

NHTSA evaluated a large-scale demonstration of the curricula conducted in Dekalb County, Georgia. Over a 3-year period, students were randomly assigned to one of the two curricula or to a no-training comparison group. Students' driving records over the next six years of driving demonstrated a six percent reduction in crashes among drivers in the standard education programs.

The reasons why driver-education courses seem to have had only limited success as a crash reduction program are unclear. Some safety professionals have suggested that shorter programs focusing on specific topics would be more effective than traditional courses. Others have suggested a two-phase driver education integrated with driving experience.

NHTSA also has developed and tested short instructional programs (modules) intended to supplement driver-education instruction. These modules reliably increased knowledge and improved self-reported safe driving. Unfortunately, these modules were introduced at a time when school-based driver-education courses were suffering cutbacks due to tight school budgets and were not widely implemented as designed. Other completed NHTSA projects include preliminary preparation of a curriculum to provide collision-avoidance skills.

The following paragraphs highlight the most significant of these activities.


Driver Licensing The driver licensing system is the key to integrating new drivers safely into the highway network and limiting the driving of those who pose safety problems. In order to ensure that the Agency's research and program activities are well accepted among State driver-licensing agencies, NHTSA works closely with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA).

Research in this area has produced a model driver-improvement (point) system for identifying problem drivers and provides remedial instruction or imposes sanctions based on the severity of offenses. This system has been adopted to some extent by many State licensing agencies.

Driver licenses provide youth with a measure of status and independence. They also present social opportunities and other benefits. Thus, youths are highly motivated to obtain a driver license and to keep it. Provisional licensing programs take advantage of these realities by prescribing certain requirements (e.g., lower BAC thresholds, nighttime restrictions, safety belt use, no violations, etc.) to which provisional licensees must adhere in order to acquire and retain a regular driver license.

In conjunction with the AAMVA, NHTSA developed a model provisional-licensing program designed to ease novice drivers under the age of 18 into the driving environment. Provisional licensing enables these young drivers to gain knowledge, skill, and experience over time under controlled conditions.

Parts of the model program were implemented by the States of Maryland, California, and Oregon. Evaluations of these programs showed reduction in crashes and traffic convictions among the affected age group. However, despite the existence of the NHTSA/AAMVA model program, and evidence that provisional licensing can be effective, States have been reluctant to initiate such programs.


Attitudes The young driver highway safety problem stems from more than a lack of knowledge or skills. Consequently, NHTSA has endeavored to identify and understand other characteristics of young drivers that contribute to the problem, so that appropriate countermeasures can be developed. The Agency has conducted preliminary research on risk-taking to determine how younger drivers perceive risk differently from more experienced drivers, and in what ways their risk choices differ from other drivers.

Other NHTSA research has examined norms and attitudes of adolescents and young adults related to alcohol use and driving. Respondents reported strong societal influences supporting drinking and driving after drinking. Respondents also lacked information on risk factors, assessing degree of impairment, and consequences of drinking and driving.

Recent national telephone surveys on drinking and driving issues conducted for NHTSA will provide additional information on attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors of this age group. Results of this research have not yet been released.


Enforcement General deterrence is an important part of the Agency's young driver program. Recently completed NHTSA research explored the problem of low arrests and citations for underage drinking drivers, and identified barriers to effective enforcement of drinking and driving laws as they pertain to these drivers. Further, the study examined enforcement programs that appear to be successful in addressing the problem, identified general principles for effective enforcement of drinking and driving laws among underage drinkers, and developed an assessment package to assist police agencies in implementing effective enforcement practices.

Raising the minimum drinking age (MDA) for alcohol to 21 has led to substantial reductions in crash-related fatalities among young drivers. NHTSA has conducted research to identify feasible, acceptable, and effective programs to deter adolescent drinking in support of the 21 MDA. Experts and youths participating in the study largely agreed on which programs would be most effective. They included: (1) programs that suspend the driver license of underage drinkers or postpone the age at which individuals become eligible to receive a license; and (2) improvements in the design and distribution of driver licenses in order to reduce the use of fraudulent identification to obtain alcohol.

The Agency also has evaluated the effects of a Maryland law restricting persons under age 21 from driving with any detectable amount of alcohol in their system (current devices cannot detect BACs below .02 percent). The study found a reduction in the average number of under-21 crash-involved drivers judged "had been drinking" by the police associated with the implementation of the law. Further, the effectiveness of the law was enhanced by the addition of a public information and education (PI&E) campaign that emphasized the possible penalties for violation of the regulation.

While the majority of the Agency's research on enforcement for young drivers has focused on alcohol, other efforts have been directed at other unsafe behaviors, most notably driving above posted speed limits.


Adjudication NHTSA has been co-sponsoring workshops with judges to help them deal in a more effective manner with impaired driving issues both in the courts and in their communities. NHTSA also has been conducting research to validate an assessment instrument for determining if young drivers charged with violating drinking and driving laws would benefit from enrollment in alcohol-treatment programs.


Motorcycle Safety Improving skills and protection of motorcyclists has been another important NHTSA objective. The problem in the motorcycle area is principally centered among young drivers. Motorcycle safety research has been concentrated in three major areas: operator testing and licensing, rider education, and helmet use, but has also included studies related to conspicuity enhancement, alcohol safety, and moped safety. A great deal of the motorcycle research has been done in conjunction with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

NHTSA research has provided much of the current knowledge on the nature of the motorcycle crash problem through a benchmark crash analysis study that identified causal factors of motorcycle crashes, and identified countermeasures for crash and injury prevention. More recent NHTSA research includes development of visual cues for police to detect DWI motorcyclists.

The bulk of current NHTSA efforts in the motorcycle area are support activities through cooperative agreements and grants. Current youth-specific demonstration grants include (1) a court referral program that requires violators to successfully complete a motorcycle rider education course; and (2) a program to encourage enrollment of younger cyclists in rider education courses, encourage use of protective gear, increase enforcement of DWI laws among motorcyclists, and reduce the number of younger motorcyclists riding without a proper license.


Community Programs The Agency has sponsored a number of efforts to focus attention on younger drivers. In 1988, the Agency held regional youth traffic safety meetings attended by local, State and Federal officials. These meetings asked for recommendations on how to support more joint activities between alcohol, safety belt, speed control and other safety programs to reach the common target audience of younger drivers. Participants identified a need to convene a national gathering of leaders from each State who are responsible for youth program areas. In July 1989, NHTSA cosponsored a Forum on Youth Traffic Safety Initiatives in Washington, D.C., attended by traffic safety experts, government officials, representatives from the private sector, and members of the youth traffic safety research community. These individuals developed an Agenda for Action, since published by NHTSA.

The Forum's published recommendations are organized according to the "Youth Traffic Safety Model." This model outlines nine important components in any community's system for reducing traffic fatalities among this age group: school-based programs, enforcement programs, extracurricular programs, licensing programs, community-based programs, adjudication programs, work-based programs, supervision programs, and legislative initiatives.

NHTSA has used its grant program to encourage implementation of such comprehensive programs in the States and has supported efforts by national organizations to address the underage drinking problem. Additionally, NHTSA has developed resource materials to assist implementation.



Directions for Current and Future Research
Although significant progress has been made in recent years, motor vehicle crashes continue as a major contributor to deaths and injuries among young adults. Explanations posed for the heavy toll include their inexperience as drivers, their risk-taking behavior, aspects of the youth culture that influence driving, and pressure from peers. Yet the reasons underlying unsafe driving by younger drivers are not well understood. Moreover, research to date generally has shown only punitive or restrictive measures to be effective in reducing crashes and injuries among young drivers. There is a lack of knowledge about how to elicit safer driving through education and positive incentives.


Problem Identification The following research projects are necessary to obtain fundamental information required to develop program strategies.


Develop Model for Understanding Unsafe Driving Practices by Younger Drivers Research suggests that young drivers often are ignorant of important aspects of risky driving behaviors. Yet the young adult crash problem stems from more than a lack of knowledge among drivers. Norms, perceptions, cognitive abilities, attitudes, culture, lifestyle, and situational pressures all seem to contribute to decisions regarding driving. Most of these factors imply a motivational component to unsafe driving, i.e., people do what they are doing for reasons that have little to do with information or skills deficits. This research will establish what is currently known about risk-taking by young people in a variety of health-behavior areas, extract common elements, and describe the relationships between these elements and risky behavior. As part of this effort, NHTSA plans to sponsor or co-sponsor a national symposium on risk-taking.


Assess Impact of Advanced Technology Information Systems on Risk-taking Behavior Risk taking appears to play a far greater role in the crashes of younger drivers than in those of middle-aged or older drivers. Driving research using high-fidelity simulators, such as the planned National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS), permits the gathering of detailed information on driver behavior and performance under simulated high-risk driving scenarios. Such scenarios cannot be addressed using conventional research methods (e.g., instrumented vehicles) due to safety concerns. A NHTSA program on crash avoidance warning systems will identify opportunities for crash prevention through the use of warning systems, and will determine how warning signals (e.g., "Approaching curve too fast!") can be effectively presented to most drivers.

Some researchers have hypothesized that drivers increase their risky behaviors in response to improvements in highway or vehicle safety, thereby partially or even fully negating the positive effects of crash countermeasures. Accordingly, NHTSA will assess the effects of prospective crash-avoidance technologies on driver risk taking.


Determine Utility of Addressing Specific Sub-groups of Young Drivers While there is reason to develop countermeasures for all young adults, due to generalized risk in that age group, all young drivers are not equivalent risk candidates. The question arises as to which subgroups merit special attention due to higher levels of unsafe driving or unique countermeasure needs. For example, the literature shows males to be far more at-risk than females, although females appear to be driving more like males in recent years.

This research will obtain data on young adults who engage in unsafe driving practices to identify target subgroups, determine geographic distribution, clarify patterns of unsafe driving practices, and determine other characteristics important to understanding and addressing the problem. National data collection will include the conduct of telephone surveys in the alcohol and occupant protection areas. In the alcohol area, the survey will help define strategic target groups. The occupant protection survey will focus on knowledge of and attitudes toward occupant protection issues, but will also collect data on driving habits to identify groups appropriate for targeting. Both surveys will query the total adult population, but will collect data from sufficient numbers of younger drivers to allow adequate analysis. Additional information may be acquired through focus-group interviews to explore particular issues in more depth, in order to obtain sufficient understanding of complex issues to permit development of appropriate countermeasure strategies.

A separate research project will be collecting and analyzing data concerning young employees ages 16 through 24. The project will focus on young employees who are employed full- or part-time and are not included in school-based countermeasure programs. The project will identify the extent to which young employees are at greater risk than their older counterparts, and will assist NHTSA in developing programs to reduce those risks.


Establish Feasibility of Advanced Technology to Reduce Crashes In addition to its ongoing basic research on driver performance and crash causation, NHTSA has underway or in planning a series of programs to determine how, and how effectively, advanced technology crash avoidance countermeasure concepts can reduce crashes. NHTSA's near-term programs will develop performance specifications for systems dealing with rear-end, intersection/crossing path, lane change/merging/backing, and single-vehicle roadway departure crashes. (Later programs will develop performance specifications for night/vision enhancement systems and rapid response emergency medical service "Mayday" systems.) The single-vehicle roadway departure and emergency medical service projects will be highly relevant to younger drivers as they are over-represented in these crashes.

Current NHTSA-funded research focuses on developing methods of detecting reduced performance associated with drowsiness and fatigue, a problem in which younger drivers are somewhat over-involved, relative to other age groups. Later, this research will focus on erratic driving behaviors and performance, areas particularly relevant to younger driver crashes.


Determine Role of Dynamic Vehicle Cues on Driver Driving involves a continuous interaction of the driver with his or her vehicle and the roadway environment. Visual cues from the roadway are obviously of paramount importance. Less obvious is the importance of motion cues from within the driver (e.g., kinesthetic, vestibular) and certain vehicle response cues (e.g., body roll, apparent oversteer/understeer). IVHS (Intelligent Vehicle and Highway System) technologies present the possibility that such cues may be manipulated in the future to provide enhanced feedback to the driver to decrease the likelihood of vehicle loss-of-control. The nature of the feedback may even be adjustable based on factors such as driver age or risk. This research program will determine the effects of various combinations of cues on driver performance.


Program Development The following research projects focus on developing strategies for addressing problem areas and generating suitable countermeasure elements to address specific issues.

Tailor Program Strategies to the Needs and Characteristics of Specific Target Populations An important ingredient to reducing motor vehicle crashes and injuries is developing strategies that effectively counter underlying reasons for engaging in unsafe driving behaviors. To the extent that such reasons reflect cultural or group norms, countermeasures should be tailored to the needs of specific target groups. Moreover, groups may differ in their receptivity to varying information messages or to varying methods for inducing behavior change.

This research program will determine educational and other techniques that will be effective with different population subgroups. For example, NHTSA's norms research program currently is working on developing techniques to elicit anti-DWI behavior from drivers, including younger drivers. This and other projects will be used to develop approaches, strategies, materials, and programs applicable to specific groups.

Develop Methods and Materials to Improve Enforcement and Adjudication Involving Younger Drivers Safety legislation and its enforcement have been crucial contributors to the gains made in highway safety. Yet there is significant room for improvement in enforcement and adjudication. This is particularly true in dealing with younger drivers, whose levels of arrests and citations for certain violations (e.g., DUI/DWI among drivers younger than 21 years of age) fall below what one would expect from their contribution to the motor vehicle crash problem. Developing improved enforcement techniques, plus developing materials to assist the police and courts in enforcing the laws, should add to the safety benefits already accrued from current deterrence efforts.

This effort will determine the types of sanctions that would be most effective in deterring youth from proscribed driving behaviors and develop methods and materials to improve enforcement of highway safety laws for younger drivers. For example, NHTSA is funding an inter-agency agreement with the Department of Justice to (1) examine issues of enforcement, adjudication, and prosecution of drinking and driving laws among underage drinking drivers; (2) develop technical assistance materials to support alcohol enforcement efforts with underage drinking drivers; and (3) set up demonstration sites to test the materials. NHTSA also has awarded grants to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to conduct a series of statewide workshops for their respective constituencies on youth adjudication and enforcement issues.

Other planned research includes studies of the use of enforcement technology, such as passive alcohol sensors and roadside videotaping, that may have relevance to younger drivers.

Determine Bases for Motorcycle Operation With Improper Crash data show substantial numbers of riders not properly licensed to operate the motorcycle. This evidence suggests that many riders may not have the requisite skills and training to operate safely in traffic. This research effort will determine reasons for improper licensure so that strategies may be developed to increase proper licensure among young motorcyclists. Promising procedures will be evaluated.

Develop Methods for Involving Parents in Building Safe Driving Habits in Their Children Parents have great potential to influence their children, being experienced drivers who, for better or worse, provide models of "acceptable" driving behavior. Parents could also monitor and shape the performance of their offspring. However, they are rarely employed in programmatic efforts to build safe driving habits among younger drivers. NHTSA previously conducted research to assess the feasibility of developing programs to assist parents in preventing drinking and driving by their children. The results suggested some barriers to parental involvement in traffic safety programs that would need to be overcome.

Research on how best to do so must wait until we know which youth subgroups are most important to target. It may well be that some of the target groups will consist of persons for whom there is little hope for obtaining effective parental influence. There is a need first to identify the target groups and gain an understanding of them. Consequently, this research must follow identification of target groups in order to make decisions about whom to target for parental involvement and determine effective methods for eliciting this involvement.



Program Evaluation
The following research projects examine existing programs to document their implementation processes or assess the extent to which they meet their outcome objectives.

Evaluate Implementation and Effectiveness of Safety Programs Directed Toward Younger Drivers While numerous highway safety programs are implemented across the nation, relatively few undergo rigorous evaluation. Thus, there is a great deal of activity but not much information on what works. Even with an area such as provisional licensing, where there is evidence of effectiveness, questions persist about how best to implement the program and which components may be most effective.

NHTSA's research agenda includes evaluation of countermeasure activities to document their effectiveness and/or determine the best ways of implementing the prevention method. For example, lower BAC limits for drivers under age 21 will receive further study through crash data analyses conducted for States having the lower limits, as well as States not having lower limits. NHTSA also will be evaluating provisional licensing in those States which have implemented a provisional system that contains a majority of the components recommended in the NHTSA/AAMVA model program. The evaluations will include an attempt to assess individual system components.

Other planned activities include evaluation of improved motorcycle licensing procedures and programs and field test of programs that support 21 MDA legislation.

Evaluate Regional Underage Drinking Program Underage drinking poses a significant threat to the safety of younger drivers. NHTSA awarded a grant in FY 92 to the Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP) to conduct a regional effort to combat this problem. The three year project involves the development of an action plan for the Washington, DC region, its implementation, and evaluation. The first year of the grant involved the collection of baseline data to assess the nature of the problem and what should be done to address it. In addition, the project has initiated a process evaluation of the regional effort, and has been working to identify appropriate outcome measures for an evaluation of program effectiveness.



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