The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 5, 2012

Are there any safe teen drivers?

July 5, 2012

In 2010 almost half of 17-year-olds, two-thirds of 18-year-olds, and three-fourths of 19-year-olds were licensed drivers. Sadly, motor vehicle crashes are the single largest cause of death for this age group in the United States and around the world. In 2009 over 2,300 teen drivers were killed and almost 200,000 more were injured in motor vehicle crashes in the United States. In fact, the majority of teen drivers have a crash within six months of getting their licenses. And shockingly, for two out of three 16- to 19-year-old drivers who were killed in a car crash, it was their first crash.

Licensing rates and crash rates among teens are down, although the cause is debated: is it the poor economy, the lure of online pursuits and computer games, a growing green sentiment, or a response to safety programs? No one really knows, although such successes surely have many “mothers.” Yet despite these impressive gains, in 2009, when drivers ages 15 to 20 represented only 6.1 percent of all drivers on U.S. highways, they accounted for 11 percent of all drivers involved in fatal crashes and 14 percent of all drivers involved in police-reported crashes.

We know that young drivers face special challenges in driving due to a combination of immaturity and inexperience: they’re more likely to speed, take risks, drive distracted, and lose control of their vehicles. Young drivers often feel invincible; that, combined with poor decisionmaking and inadequate recognition of risk, leads to crashes. Not surprisingly, teen drivers are at fault in almost 80 percent of the serious crashes in which they are involved.  Teens of color, those most likely to live in metro areas, are at special risk; for example crash rates among male Latino teen drivers have been going up even as they’ve been dropping for all other teen drivers.

We know that female teens are safer than male drivers—but young women are becoming bigger risk takers and so may start to close the gender gap in teen crash rates. We also know that driver education programs are NOT associated with lower crash rates. Then what’s the answer? Data from the United States and around the world show the same thing: keep young people off the road for as long as possible and you will significantly reduce teen crashes and crash deaths. Nothing works better than that—crash risk drops remarkably for every 6 months of age; 18-year-olds are many times safer than 16-year-olds. Graduated License Programs that seriously constrain the total amount of driving young people are allowed to do in their teen years are clearly linked to lower teen crashes. Better yet: follow the European and especially Scandinavian lead and raise the driver licensing age to 19 or 20. Because, on average, no teenager is a safe driver.

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