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Teen Driving

What's the Problem?

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers. In 2011, about 2,650 teens in the United States ages 16 to 19 were killed and almost 292,000 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor-vehicle crashes. This means that seven teens ages 16 to 19 died every day from motor vehicle injuries that year. Per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are three times more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash.

Who's at Risk?

Among teen drivers, those at especially high risk for motor vehicle crashes are:

  • Males: In 2011, the motor vehicle death rate for male drivers and passengers ages 16 to 19 was almost two times that of their female counterparts.
  • Teens driving with teen passengers: The presence of teen passengers increases the crash risk of unsupervised teen drivers. This risk increases with the number of teen passengers.
  • Newly licensed teens: Crash risk is particularly high during the first months of licensure.

Other factors that put teens at increased risk:

  • Low seat belt use: Compared with other age groups, teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use. In 2013, only 54% of high school students reported they always wear seat belts when riding with someone else.
  • Drinking and driving: At all levels of blood alcohol concentration, the risk of involvement in a motor vehicle crash is greater for teens than for older drivers.
    • In 2012, 23% of drivers aged 15 to 20 involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes were drinking.
    • In a national survey conducted in 2011, 24% of teens reported that, within the previous month, they had ridden with a driver who had been drinking alcohol and 8% reported having driven after drinking alcohol within the same one-month period.
    • In 2012, 71% of drivers aged 15 to 20 who were killed in motor vehicle crashes after drinking were not wearing a seat belt.

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Can It Be Prevented?

Yes. Promoting the use of seat belts and enforcing minimum legal drinking age laws and zero blood-alcohol tolerance laws for drivers under age 21 are recommended.

However, prevention is hampered by peer pressure among teenagers to drink or use drugs. Teens are also more likely than older drivers to take risks such as speeding, running red lights, making illegal turns, and riding with an intoxicated driver.

There is pressure from peers to learn to drive and to own a car, thus making dating and getting a job easier. Parents also may pressure teenagers to learn to drive so that they can drive themselves to sports practice, school, and social events. In addition, teens may feel some social stigma about not being able to drive, being driven by parents, or not owning their own vehicle.

Driving is a complex skill, one that must be practiced to be learned well. Teenagers' lack of driving experience, together with risk-taking behavior, puts them at heightened risk for crashes. The need for skill-building and driving supervision for new drivers is the basis for graduated driver licensing systems, which exist in all U.S. states and Washington, DC. Graduated driver licensing puts restrictions on new drivers; these are systematically lifted as the driver gains experience.

Tips for Scripts

  • INFORM viewers that the youngest drivers have the highest rates of motor vehicle-related deaths and injuries; lack of driving experience is a contributing factor to their crashes.
  • EDUCATE viewers that driving is a skill and, like all skills, one a person must learn and practice.
  • EXPLAIN to viewers about graduated driver licensing: restrictions on new drivers are systematically lifted as the driver gains experience. Parents can use their own "graduated driver licensing" with appropriate restrictions and privileges.
  • INFORM viewers that seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front seat passenger car occupants by 45%, yet many teenagers, particularly males, don't use seat belts regularly.
  • REMIND viewers that it's important to use a seat belt for all trips.
  • INFORM viewers that the highest rate of motor vehicle-related deaths occurs from midnight to 6 a.m., and that death rates increase as speed increases.
  • REMIND viewers that alcohol and drug use increases the risk of a driver's causing a motor vehicle crash and the risk of pedestrian-related injury.

Case Examples

  1. Franklin, age 17, has just been awarded a full athletic scholarship to the state university. He and his friends celebrate by driving out to the river on Friday night. Franklin rides with Donnie, his best friend. An older friend buys several cases of beer and a large bottle of Jack Daniels, which gets passed around. They sit by the river, talking about their future lives: college, girl friends, making good money. Around 2 am, the beer gone, they pile into cars to go home. Franklin knows Donnie has had a lot to drink, but Donnie seems fine, wide awake and alert, so Franklin says nothing as his friend gets behind the wheel. Near home, Donnie races through a traffic light that has just turned red, and their car is struck on the passenger's side by a pickup truck. Donnie is not wearing a seat belt and is flung from the car and killed. Franklin is wearing a seat belt. He is badly hurt but survives the crash. He goes through months of painful rehabilitation, and suffers guilt for not stopping his friend from getting behind the wheel.
  2. Joe O'Malley is teaching his teenage daughter to drive. Christie has trouble merging into traffic on a highway, and must brake suddenly to avoid hitting a truck. She has tears in her eyes. Joe has her take the next exit and pull into a parking lot. Crying now, Christie says she'll never learn to drive. Joe tells her she is trying to learn a new skill, that she's doing great, and not to give up.
  • Page last reviewed: September 15, 2017
  • Page last updated: September 15, 2017
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