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Young drivers have high crash risks for two main reasons, as documented by extensive research summarized in Hedlund et al. (2003). First, they are inexperienced and just learning to drive. The mechanics of driving require much of their attention, so safety considerations frequently are secondary. They do not have experience in recognizing potentially risky situations or in reacting appropriately and controlling their vehicles in these situations. Second, normal adolescent development involves increases in novelty seeking and risk-taking behaviors (Kelley et al., 2004). In fact, research on adolescent development suggests that key areas of the brain involved in judgments and decision making continue to develop beyond adolescence (Dahl, 2008; Keating, 2007; Somerville, 2016; Steinberg, 2007). In addition, adolescents are more prone to seek rewards and overlook risks, especially in the presence of peers (Chein et al., 2011; Spear, 2011).

Inexperience makes certain circumstances more dangerous for younger drivers. In addition, due to typical adolescent brain development, young drivers are more likely to put themselves in risky circumstances (Alderman & Johnston, 2018; Ferguson, 2003; Williams, 2003). Young drivers are especially at-risk in the following five circumstances.

  • Nighttime Driving: Driving is more difficult and dangerous at night for everyone, but particularly for teenagers (Lin & Fearn, 2003; Paterson & Dawson, 2016). Young drivers have less experience driving at night than during the day, and drowsiness and alcohol may be more of a factor at night.
  • Driving under the Influence of Substances: Young drivers’ inexperience with both driving and drinking means that they have a higher crash risk at all BACs than older drivers (Voas et al., 2012). Self-reported incidence of alcohol-impaired driving by high school seniors has steadily decreased from 9.1% in 2015 to 8.1% in 2017 and to 7.8% in the most recent survey in 2019 (CDC, 2020). The percentage of high school seniors reporting that they rode with an impaired teen driver has steadily decreased from 28.2% in 2009 to 17% in 2019. In contrast, the percentage of high school seniors who self-reported driving after the use of drugs (including marijuana and combinations of drugs and alcohol) in 2017 was 13%. Historical data on young drivers’ driving under the influence of drugs other than alcohol is sparse; however, some surveys show that the use of marijuana and other illicit drugs may be more prevalent than alcohol in young drivers (Li et al., 2016; O’Malley & Johnston, 2013).
  • Passenger Interactions: Teenage passengers can distract young drivers and encourage them to take risks (Foss & Goodwin, 2014; Lin & Fearn, 2003).
  • Seat Belt Use: Seat belts reduce the risk of injury or fatality in a crash (see Seat Belts and Child Restraints), but teenage drivers and passengers have lower reported belt use rates than adult drivers and passengers (Ferguson, 2003; Shults, Haegerich et al., 2016).
  • Cell Phone Use: All drivers are at higher risk when talking or texting; however, young drivers have more difficulty handling distractions (Lee, 2007). Teenage and young drivers have repeatedly been found to have increased levels of crash risk due to distractions involving cell phone use (Carney et al., 2016; Delgado et al., 2016; Guo et al., 2017; Klauer et al., 2014).