Motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of unintentional death in 2018 for the 15 to 24-years old age group in the United States (CDC, 2020). In 2018 there were 1,719 drivers 15- to 20- years old who were killed, and an estimated 199,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes (NCSA, 2020). In comparison with adult drivers, young drivers are substantially over-involved in crashes. In 2018 drivers 15 to 20 made up 5.3% of licensed drivers in the United States, yet they made up 8% of total drivers in all fatal crashes and 12% of drivers in all crashes. As shown in the figure below, drivers 16 to 20 years old have the highest involvement in fatal crashes of any age group.
Sources: NCSA (2020); FHWA (2020), Table DL-220
As shown in the figure below, the number of young driver fatalities increases with age. However, the rate of young driver fatalities per 10,000 licensed drivers is relatively stable among drivers age 16 to 20 (between 1.25 at 16 and 1.51 at 18).
Sources: NCSA (2020); FHWA (2020), Table DL-220
With the exception of drivers 80 and older, per mile driven, young drivers are even more over-involved in fatal crashes than older drivers. The trend has largely remained the same over the years (McCartt & Teoh, 2015). From April 2016 to March 2017, drivers 16 to 19 years old had the highest crash rate as compared to all other age groups, except drivers 80 and older. Drivers 16 to 19 years old were involved in 4.8 fatal crashes per 100 million travel miles, compared to 3.3 for drivers 20 to 24, 2.3 for drivers 25-29, 1.4 for drivers 30-59, 1.3 for drivers 60-69, 1.8 for drivers 70-79, and 5.4 for drivers 80+ (IIHS, 2019a). Sixty-three percent of the people killed in young driver crashes in 2018 were the teen driver themselves. Twelve percent of fatalities were passengers of the teen drivers and 57% of these were teen passengers.
Trends. From 2009 to 2018 there was a 20% decrease in the number of young drivers (15 to 20) involved in fatal crashes, compared to a 14% increase in all drivers involved in fatal crashes during the same period (NCSA, 2020). The number of young drivers involved in police reported crashes decreased 1% from 2017 to 2018. The reasons for the reductions in the number of fatal crash involvements and police-reported crashes among young drivers are not entirely known. Many factors could have led to this decline, including teen drivers waiting longer to get licensed, the advancement in vehicle safety technology, establishment of multi-stage licensing systems, and education and enforcement of traffic laws (Alderman & Johnston, 2018; Shults et al., 2016).
Young-driver characteristics. 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, 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).
Inexperience makes certain circumstances more dangerous for younger drivers. In addition, immaturity increases the likelihood of young drivers putting themselves in risky circumstances. Young drivers are especially at-risk in the following five circumstances (Alderman & Johnston, 2018; Ferguson, 2003; Williams, 2003):
- Nighttime driving: Driving is more difficult and dangerous at night for everyone, but particularly for teenagers. Young drivers have less experience driving at night than during the day, and drowsiness and alcohol may be more of a factor at night (Lin & Fearn, 2003; Paterson & Dawson, 2016).
- 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 13.1% in 2013, to 9.1% in 2015, and to 8.1% in the most recent survey in 2017 (CDC, 2018). The percentage of high school seniors reporting that they rode with an impaired teen driver has steadily decreased from 31.5% in 2007 to 16% in 2017. 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 are 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).
- Belt use: Seat belts reduce the risk of injury or fatality in a crash (see Seat Belts and Child Restraints, Overview), but teenage drivers and passengers have lower reported belt use rates than adult drivers and passengers (Ferguson, 2003; Shults et al., 2016). In 2017 teen drivers had the lowest self-reported seat belt use rates compared to all other age groups (CDC, 2018).
- Cell phone use: All drivers are at higher risk when talking or texting (see Appendix A4, Section 1.2); 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 (Guo et al., 2017; Delgado et al., 2016).