Losing a child is, without a doubt, a parent’s worst nightmare. But sadly, each year there are parents in the United States (U.S.) that find themselves in the unimaginable position of making final arrangements for their teenage child killed in a motor vehicle crash, rather than organizing birthday parties or graduation celebrations. As shown in Figure 1, despite welcome declines in the number of traffic fatalities involving teenage drivers and passengers in 2018 and 2019, more than 2,000 U.S. teen vehicle occupant deaths occured each year. The data in this report come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).
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Why the Problem Exists
Elevated crash rates for teen drivers result both from inexperience and immaturity. Young drivers are still learning critical driving skills that experienced drivers take for granted. And teenagers are still developing physically, mentally and emotionally. Lack of experience behind the wheel makes it more difficult for teenagers to assess potential crash risks, such as speeding, as well as to recognize and respond to hazards when they occur. While the relative contribution of driver age versus inexperience has long been debated, the effects of experience are clearly demonstrated by a steep drop in crash rates, especially among the youngest drivers, during the first few months of driving8.
Adolescents’ brains differ from those of adults in important ways. Higher teen driver death rates are reported to be related to problems with behavior and emotion control9. The human brain isn’t fully developed until the early to mid-twenties, particularly the prefrontal cortex where impulse control, decision making and judgment are centered, thus compromising important functions related to safe driving. Some teenagers may also be impulsive, thrill seeking and more drawn to the rewards of risky behavior rather than wary of the negative consequences of such behaviors.
Driver Skills and Driving Behavior
Learning to drive safely takes time and extended practice, regardless of age. Many skills must be mastered. New drivers usually learn maneuvering skills such as steering, accelerating and braking relatively quickly. Meanwhile, more complex tasks such as visual search, risk and hazard perception, and appropriate responses to the latter, come with practice over a longer time period.
Novice drivers’ attention can be easily overloaded such that their ability to pay attention to multiple activities on the road (e.g., pedestrians and cross traffic) is limited. There is evidence novice drivers are less able to assess hazards in the traffic environment and their visual search patterns are less attuned to detect potential future risks10. Observational studies have documented the tendency for teen drivers to speed and allow shorter following distances11 12. These risky behaviors are exacerbated in the presence of teen passengers.
Reducing the Problem
One of the biggest challenges in addressing the dangers of speeding is that this behavior is widely accepted nationwide. The U.S. has a culture of speeding in which many drivers view speed limits as minimums rather than the maximums based on ideal conditions. According to the “2019 AAA Safety Culture Index,” 48.3% of motorists reported exceeding the posted speed limit by 15 mph on highways, while 41.5% admitted driving 10 mph over the posted speed limit on residential streets in the past month13. The latest speed research conducted for NHTSA confirms what the motoring public admits: 68% are exceeding the posted speed limit on limited access roads and 56% and 58% are doing so on arterials and collectors, respectively.