Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year olds. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 3,620 drivers in this group died in car crashes in 2004, accounting for 14 percent of all the drivers involved in fatal crashes and 18 percent of all the drivers involved in police-reported crashes. Twenty-four percent of the teen drivers killed were intoxicated. In 2002 (latest data available) the estimated economic cost of police-reported crashes involving drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 years old was $40.8 billion, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Among licensed drivers, young people between the ages of 15 and 20 years old have the highest rate of fatal crashes relative to other age groups, including the elderly. In fact, the risk of being involved in a fatal crash for teens is three times greater than for drivers age 65 to 69.
Immaturity and lack of driving experience are the two main factors leading to the high crash rate among teens. Graduated licensing laws, which include a three-phase program that allows teen drivers to develop mature driving attitudes and gain experience behind the wheel, have been successful in reducing teen motor vehicle accidents.
Crash Facts: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that 3,620 drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 died in motor vehicle crashes in 2004, up 5.0 percent from 3,449 in 2003. Twenty-four percent of the young drivers killed had BACs (blood-alcohol content) levels of 0.08 or higher.
A 2005 survey sheds light on young drivers' risky behaviors behind the wheel. More than half (56 percent) of young drivers use phone while driving, according to an Allstate Foundation survey conducted between March and July 2005. These results are from a national online survey of 1,000 people between the ages of 15 and 17 and focus group discussions. Sixty-nine percent said that they speed to keep up with traffic and 64 percent said they speed to go through a yellow light. Forty-seven percent said that passengers sometimes distract them and just about half of them believed that most crashes that involve teens result from drunk driving.
Graduated Drivers Licenses: Some people question whether 16-year olds should be allowed to get a drivers license. This issue has gained some attention from a 2005 National Institute of Mental Health report that shows the part of the brain that weighs risks, makes judgments and controls impulsive behavior develops throughout the teen years and does not mature until around age 25.
Graduated drivers license (GDL) programs are helping to reduce teen driving deaths. States began enacting GDL laws in the 1990s. The graduated license program is a three-stage license phase-in process that allows young drivers to gain experience before receiving a full-privilege license, see Background. Latest data from NHTSA show that the fatality rate for 16 to 20 year old vehicle occupants in motor vehicle crashes per 100,000 population was 27.07 in 2004, down from 27.67 in 2003 and 30.46 in 1994. The 2004 rate was the lowest since record keeping began in 1975.
A study released in July 2006 found that GDL programs can reduce the incidence of fatal crashes for 16-year old drivers by an average of 11 percent. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that when states had comprehensive GDL programs, those with a least five of the most important elements in effect, there was a 20 percent reduction in fatal crashes involving 16-year old drivers. These elements were:
A minimum age of 15 1/2 for obtaining a learners permit
A waiting period after obtaining a learners permit of at least three months before applying for an intermediate license
A minimum of 30 hours of supervised driving
Minimum age of at least 16 years for obtaining an intermediate license
Minimum age of at least 17 years for full licensing
A restriction on carrying passengers.
The study was supported by NHTSA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers used data from 1994-2004 from NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System and examined fatal crash data in 36 states that had GDL programs and in seven states that did not. They found that in states that had six or seven components, the fatal crash reduction was 21 percent.
One key feature of GDL programs is the passenger restriction which limits the number of passengers a teen driver may have in the vehicle to eliminate distractions. Thirty-four states have enacted these laws with various provisions regarding the ages of passengers and the number a teen driver may transport. According to a 2005 study, when teens drive other teens, they tend to drive faster than other motorists and leave less distance between their vehicles and the vehicles in front of them. They speed more frequently when there are other teens in vehicles, especially males. These findings by researchers at the National Institutes of Health and Westat were compiled from data collected at 13 sites on roads in the Washington, D.C. area, where over 3,000 passenger vehicles were observed, including 471 driven by teenagers.
Fatality and injury crash rates for 16-year-old drivers were 20 percent lower in a state with nighttime and passenger restrictions than in a comparison jurisdiction that lacked these provisions for safer teen driving, according to a study released in June 2006 by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. For the study, the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) compared crash rates and crash patterns of teenage drivers in one jurisdiction with nighttime and passenger restrictions during the intermediate stage of GDL with those in another jurisdiction whose GDL program did not include such restrictions. TIRF also surveyed a random sample of 500 crash-free and 500 crash-involved, newly licensed teens and their parents in each of two jurisdictions. The study found that twice as many crash-free teens reported never having violated their state’s passenger restriction provision, compared with teens that had crashed.
Cell Phones: Safety experts say that using cell phones while driving is a major distraction and is a factor in crashes, see Cell Phones and Driving paper. More young drivers are using cell phones, according to a February 2005 study from NHTSA. The study reported that 8 percent of drivers age 16 to 24 were using a hand-held phone during daylight hours in 2004, compared with 5 percent in 2002 and 3 percent in 2000.
In December 2005 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Center for Statistics and Analysis released the results of their National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS), which found that in 2005, 6 percent of drivers used handheld cell phones, up from 5 percent in 2004. The survey also found that the jump was significant among young drivers ages 16 to 24, up to 10 percent in 2005 from 8 percent in 2004. The NOPUS is a probability-based observational survey. Data on driver cell phone use were collected at random stop signs or stoplights only while vehicles were stopped, and only during daylight hours.
To date, nine states (Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia) have enacted laws that prohibit young drivers from using cell phones when driving. (See State Young Driver Laws chart.) In addition, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, IL. ban all drivers from using hand-held cellphones.