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  2. Factors that Increase the Risk of Crashes

Factors that Increase the Risk of Crashes

Teens, particularly those with risk-taking personalities, are disproportionately at risk for motor vehicle crashes. Research further shows that certain situations and environmental factors or actions increase the chance that a teen will be injured or killed in a motor vehicle crash. Most of the factors listed below are not unique to teen drivers, but the lack of experience of teen drivers increases the associated risk.


Drinking and driving is a deadly combination for all age groups, but the risk of involvement in a motor vehicle crash is greater for teens than for older drivers at all levels of blood alcohol concentration (IIHS, 2017). According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 5.5 percent of youth in high school reported driving after drinking alcohol. The rate of driving after drinking was higher for boys (6.8 percent) and older students (4.1 percent overall, 4.1 percent of 12th grade girls and 5.9 percent of 12th grade girls) (CDC, 2018). Being a passenger in a car in which the driver is under the influence also increases the risk of death or injury related to alcohol. The CDC states that over 16 percent of high school students reported that they had ridden in a car driven by someone who had been drinking (2018).


As more states legalize the use of recreational marijuana, the risk of drug-impaired driving has become a bigger concern. Additionally, prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and illegal drugs also pose the risk of causing impairment alone or in combination with each other and/or alcohol. However, the perception of other drugs’ ability to cause impairment is often not as strong as perception around the dangers of alcohol. A study conducted by Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) found that a third of all teens surveyed believed it was legal to drive under the influence of marijuana in state. In every State and the District of Colombia, impaired driving is illegal. A quarter of teens admitted that driving under the influence of marijuana is common among their friends (Liberty Mutual and SADD, 2017).18 Whether by drugs—legal or illegal—alcohol, or a combination of both drugs and alcohol, impaired driving puts the driver, their passengers, and other road users at risk.

Distracted Driving

In 2015, of the 3,183 drivers under the age of 20 who were involved in fatal car crashes, 9 percent (290 drivers) were distracted when the crash occurred (NHTSA, 2015). Distracted driving can involve a number of different activities that take the driver’s full attention from driving. There are three main types of distraction:

  • Visual — taking your eyes off the road
  • Manual — taking your hands off the wheel
  • Cognitive — taking your mind off what you’re doing (NHTSA, 2010)

Common practices associated with distracted driving include using a cell phone or GPS; eating or drinking; or adjusting the radio, CD player, or mp3 player. Of those who were distracted, 14 percent were using a cell phone (NHTSA, 2017). According to the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS), the percent of 16- to 24-year-old drivers using a hand-held cell phone has declined in recent years to 4.2 percent in 2016. The precent of drivers in this age group manipulating a handheld device, however, has increased in recent years compared to the last decade to a peak of 4.9 percent in 2015. In 2015, almost four thousand young adults ages 15 to 19 were involved in fatal crashes, 9% of which were attributed to distracted driving (Pickrell & Li, 2017). Higher usage of technological devices such as cell phones and less experience multitasking while driving may increase the likelihood that the teen will be distracted (Durbin, 2014).

Driving with Other Teens in the Car

Driving, which provides teens with autonomy from their parents and can be seen as a means for increasing social standing, is often a social event for teens (Allen & Brown, 2008). Because of this, teen drivers often have other teens in the car with them (Shope & Bingham, 2008). Teen passengers increase the crash risk for unsupervised teen drivers (Chen, Baker, Braver, & Li, 2000) and increase the likelihood that the crash is the fault of the teen driver (Shope & Bingham, 2008). Compared to driving with no passengers, a 16- or 17-year-old driver's risk of death per mile driven doubles when carrying two passengers younger than 21. Furhtermore, it quadruples when carrying three or more underage passengers (AAA Foundation, 2012). This risk is unique to teens. Adult drivers do not show a similar pattern of risk (Shope & Bingham, 2008).
In exploring how teen passengers may influence teen drivers, Allen and Brown (2008) suggest adolescent development and structural restrictions imposed by driving may lead to the increased risk of crashes with peer passengers. They suggest that youth are influenced by

  • their drive to engage in risky situations,
  • their desire to please peers, and
  • the cost associated with alienating peers.

They also suggest that the act of driving imposes restrictions on how youth can interact with peers who are pressuring them. While the driver is held accountable and legally responsible for what happens when he or she is driving, peers who suggest risky behavior are not held responsible for the consequences that occur. Young drivers also have to deal with the inability to gather visual cues from their peers and understand whether they are serious or joking, the inability to joke around or act unconventionally when they are driving, and the inability to focus on addressing peer pressure because they must attend to driving. A national survey found that 94 percent of teens reported seeing passengers, at least sometimes, acting in ways that would distract the driver: 69 percent indicated that they had witnessed teen passengers acting wildly, 53 percent indicated that they had seen passengers who had been drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana, and 45 percent indicated that they had heard passengers urging the driver to speed (Winston et al., 2007).

Risky Driving

Allen and Brown (2008) suggest that youth have a higher propensity toward participating in risky behaviors, including those related to driving. Research suggests that teenage drivers are more likely to pull into traffic with less space, make illegal lane changes, maintain less distance between cars, and drive faster (Shope & Bingham, 2008; Ivers et al., 2009). This risky behavior increases with the presence of peers, especially male passengers (Simons-Morton, Lerner, & Singer, 2005; Allen & Brown, 2008) and boys are more likely to be involved in speed-related fatal crashes than girls (NHTSA, 2017). In 2015, 32 percent of 15 to 20-year-old female drivers involved in fatal crashes were reportedly speeding at the time of the crash.. The risk of speeding is higher for youth who have also been drinking. In 2016, 22 percent of youth under 21 and 42 percent of youth 21-24 involved in fatal crashes while speeding had a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher (NHTSA, 2017).

Seat Belt Use

Teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use of all age groups (NHTSA, 2018). For example, in 2017, nearly six percent of high school students reported they rarely or never wore seat belts when riding with someone else. In 2016, 53 percent of the 1,056 youth ages 16 to 20 killed in motor vehicle crashes were not wearing a seat belt (NHTSA, 2018). The rate of seat belt use is even lower when coupled with other risk factors such as driving at night or after drinking (NHTSA, 2018). In 2016, 44 percent of young drivers involved in crashes while under the influence were not wearing seat belts, and 58 percent who died were unrestrained (NHTSA, 2018).

Nighttime and Weekend Driving

There is a higher crash risk associated with driving at night and on the weekends for all drivers, but the risk is even higher for youth (Shope & Bingham, 2008). In 2016, the highest percent of crashes for teens occurred between 6 and 9 p.m. (16 percent), 9 p.m. and midnight (18 percent), and midnight and 3 a.m. (15 percent) (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 2017). Further, the 2016 data suggests that 53 percent of fatal crashes for teens occurred on the weekends; 16 percent of crashes occurred on Friday, 19 percent on Saturday, and 18 percent on Sunday (IIHS, 2017). Limited visual information, fatigue, alcohol use, risk-taking, and the presence of teen passengers in the car all lead to increased crash risk for young drivers.

Rural vs. Urban Driving

A higher number of young drivers are involved in fatal crashes on rural roads compared to urban roads. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), crashes on rural roads represent 50 percent of fatal crashes and 47 percent of fatalities for young drivers (2018).


Allen, J. P., & Brown B. B. (2008). Adolescents, peers, and motor vehicles the perfect storm? American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(3 Supp.), S289-S293.

Chen L., Baker, S. P., Braver, E. R., & Li, G. (2000). Carrying passengers as a risk factor for crashes fatal to 16- and 17-year old drivers. Journal of the American Medical Association 2000, 283(12), 1578–82.

Durbin, D. R., McGehee, D. V., Fisher, D., & McCartt, A. (2014). Special Considerations in Distracted Driving with Teens. Annals of Advances in Automotive Medicine, 58, 69–83. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4001672/

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. (2017). Fatality Facts: Teenagers (Rep.). (2017). Retrieved May 30, 2018 from http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/teenagers/fatalityfacts/teenagers

Ivers, R., Senserrick, T., Boufous, S., Stevenson, M., Chen, H., Woodward, M., & Norton, R (2009). Novice drivers’ risky driving behavior, risk perception, and crash risk: Findings from the DRIVE study. American Journal of Public Health, 99(9), 1638-1644.

Kent, C. K., Casey, C. G., & Dott, M. (Eds.). (2018). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance--United States 2017 (Vol. 67, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Rep. No. 8). Washington, DC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/pdf/2017/ss6708.pdf

Liberty Mutual Insurance, Students Against Destructive Decisions. (2017, October 12). Weed Out the Confusion [Press release]. Retrieved May 30, 2018, from https://www.libertymutualgroup.com/about-lm/news/news-release-archive/ar...

National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2017, March). Distracted driving 2015. (Traffic Safety Facts Research Note. Report No. DOT HS 812 381). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Retrieved from https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812381

National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2017, May) Speeding: 2015 data (Traffic Safety Facts. DOT HS 812 409). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Retrieved from 2015 Speeding Traffic Safety Fact Sheet.pdf

National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2018, February). Young Drivers: 2016 Data (Traffic Safety Facts. Rep. No. DOT HS 812 498). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Retrieved from 2016 YOUNG DRIVERS Traffic Safety Fact Sheet (6).pdf

National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2018, March, revised) Speeding: 2016 data (Traffic Safety Facts. DOT HS 812 480). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Retrieved from 2016 SPEEDING Traffic Safety Fact Sheet.pdf

National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2018, February). Occupant protection in passenger vehicles: 2016 data (Traffic Safety Facts. Report No. DOT HS 812 494). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Retrieved from https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812494

National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2018, April). Rural/urban comparison of traffic fatalities: 2015 data. (Traffic Safety Facts. Report No. DOT HS 812 521). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Retrieved from https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812521

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2010). Driver electronic device use in 2009. Traffic Safety Facts. Retrieved from http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811372.pdf (PDF, 8 pages)

Pickrell, T. M., & Li, H., (2017, June). Driver electronic device use in 2016 (Traffic Safety Facts Research Note. Report No. DOT HS 812 426). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Retrieved from https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812426

Shope, J. T., & Bingham,C. R. (2008).Teen driving: Motor-vehicle crashes and factors that contribute. American Journal of Prevention Medicine, 35(3S, S261-S271).

Simons-Morton, B., Lerner, N., & Singer, J. (2005). The observed effects of teenage passengers on the risky driving behavior of teenage drivers. Accident Analysis and Prevention. Nov, 37(6), 973-82. Retrieved from http://www.cippp.org/teleconf/0509-aa.pdf (PDF, 10 pages)

Tefft, B. C., Williams, A. F., & Grabowsk, J. G. (2012). Teen Driver Risk in Relation to Age and Number of Passengers (Rep.). Washington, DC: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Retrieved from http://aaafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/TeenDriverRiskAgePas...

Winston, F. K., Durbin, D. R., Ginsburg, K.R., Kinsman, S. B., Senserrick, T. M., Elliot, M. R. et al. (2007). Driving through the eyes of teens. Philadelphia, PA: Center for Injury Research and Prevention, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Retrieved from https://teendriving.statefarm.com/system/article_downloads/State_Farm_Teen_Driving_Driving_Through_Eyes_of_Teens_Closer_Look.pdf


Distracted Driving

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides a wide array of information and resources about distracted driving specific to teens and parents.

Impaired Driving

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a website and fact sheet on impaired driving which highlights the problem of impaired driving, especially for youth, ways impaired driving can be prevented and activities and programs that communities can to curb the problem.

Parents Are the Key to Safe Teen Drivers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Parents Are the Key campaign provides resources and information for parents about teen driving and what they can do to help their teen become a safe driver.

Protect the Ones You Love: Child Injuries Are Preventable – Road Traffic Injuries

This CDC initiative was developed to raise parents' awareness about the leading causes of child injury in the United States and how they can be prevented.

Teen Drivers (CDC)

This CDC website provides fact sheets, research and activities, and blogs related to teen driver safety.

Teen Drivers (DOT/NHTSA)

This U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website provides information, talking points, media tools, collateral materials, and various other marketing materials regarding a comprehensive approach to teen driver safety.

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