Numerous studies have indicated that more than any other factor, relatively low experience behind the wheel is the number one factor in calculating the risk of motor vehicle accidents.

Earning a driver’s license is a significant event for teens and parents, but being a novice driver carries many special risks. Teen drivers are the most endangered group of drivers on America’s roadways. Numerous studies have indicated that more than any other factor, relatively low experience behind the wheel is the number one factor in calculating the risk of motor vehicle accidents.

Naturally, these risks are multiplied when the novice driver at issue is a teenager, or young adult. On top of lacking experience, teen drivers have not reached important neurological milestones. Such milestones mark the complete development of certain brain structures that enhance self-control, and the regulation of emotion.

Most concerning, however, is along with their lack of experience – teens are missing key knowledge of various situations that commonly arise on the road. They lack what experts call ‘scripts,’ which allow them to know what tends to come next in certain situations, leaving them vulnerable while they hesitate to make a decision or worse- fail to realize that a decision needs to be made.

Graduated Licensing: A Revolution in Novice-Driver Safety

In the 1970’s, the Highway Safety Research Center created a graduated driver licensing (GDL) system — an approach that adjusts for different learning curves. Teen drivers must at first drive with supervision. Later, they can drive alone, without an adult, but must obey specific driving curfews. The concept was adopted in many areas throughout the U.S., Canada, and Australia.

“After the GDL programs went into effect,” Arthur Goodwin, Senior Research Associate, Highway Safety Research Center, University of North Carolina said, “We saw a 34% decline in crash rates among 16-year-old drivers and a 13% drop in crash rates for 17-year-olds. Most of the time, if we impose a traffic safety program and you are able to reduce crashes by just 2 or 3 percent, it is considered a smashing success. So, naturally, if you see crashes drop by so much as 30 something percent it is outstanding!”

“We had finally tuned our licensing programs to comply with the fact that in order to learn something as complicated as driving a motor vehicle you will need sufficient time to learn to do it. You do not learn by being lectured, you don’t learn by being preached at or threatened with demerits – people learn by doing,”
Robert D. Foss, Ph.D., Director, Center for the Study of Young Drivers, Highway Safety Research Center, University of North Carolina.

“Beyond GDLs, we can’t point to any other thing that is effective for reducing teen driver crashes,” said Goodwin, “Many things are being tried and tested, but we haven’t managed to find any great intervention other than graduated licensing.”

The Causes of Teen Auto Accidents

  • Driver error: A high percent of teen crashes are due to driver error.
  • Speeding: With a lower capacity for self-control, and resistance to peer pressure, teens are more prone to driving excessively fast.
  • Single-vehicle crashes: Because teens are much more likely to lose control of a vehicle than older drivers, more teen accidents are single vehicle accidents.
  • Passengers: Factors contributing to ride sharing are high in teen populations, making the passengers of teens a high-risk group.
  • Alcohol: Teens are less likely than adults to drive drunk, but the results are much worse when they do.
  • Night driving: Due to inexperience, and the tendency to enter into festive mentality after dark, teens are involved in 4 times as many accidents after dark.

Experience Makes all the Difference

CDC reports conclude that 7 teen deaths occur each day from automobile collisions.

“Sadly, there is a trade-off between mobility and safety,” said Arthur Goodwin, M.A., of the Highway Safety and Research Center. “[…] many of today’s teens are now becoming increasingly independent and they need a car for school or work, and parents are often eager to get help with driving duties.”

Foss says, “Experience is a tremendous issue. We recently held a workshop to explore the issue of the sharp decline in crashes as experience increases. We found that whether people start driving when they’re 15, 17, 20, or 45 – you see crashes in the first month, fewer in the second and third. It drops down very steeply over the first six to twelve months.” (4)

How Parents Can Help

  • Do not place all the responsibility on driver’s education courses. Get involved in your teen’s driver education.
  • Know the Laws. Study your local DMV driver’s handbook.
  • Impose driving curfews. Nighttime is the most dangerous time for teens to drive. Have them turn in their keys before sunset.
  • Limit passengers. Know the risks of novice driving by more passengers a novice driver carries equates to more risks and the responsibility. Limiting passengers, also limits distractions