Why are young drivers at a higher risk?

Inexperience

The majority of novice drivers do not have sufficient practical experience to handle the complex task of driving when they are first licensed. Standard driver education courses are only able to provide a minuscule amount of driving practice — not even enough for novice drivers to become minimally competent, much less proficient. A substantial amount of actual driving practice, in a variety of situations, is necessary before proficiency can be developed.

Although additional research is needed to determine how much driving experience is “enough,” there is some indication that individuals continue to improve for at least two years. Crash rates are extremely high in the first months of driving. Those decline sharply over the first several months, but continue declining for many more. One study found a statistically reliable decrease in crash rates among teens who amassed an average of about 118 hours of supervised driving practice before obtaining a license.

Impulsiveness

By virtue of their continuing cognitive, social, emotional and biological development, teenagers tend to engage in impulsive behaviors. When driving, these can be dangerous. Lack of driving experience contributes to young drivers’ inability to consistently recognize the conditions that are particularly risky. The presence of other teen occupants in the vehicle with a young driver often compounds the tendency to engage in impulsive behaviors and the failure to notice developing dangers on the roadway.

Some research indicates that young drivers are more easily distracted than experienced drivers. This is particularly problematic since less experienced drivers are not yet equipped to deal effectively with the multiple cognitive activities involved in driving even without the interference of distractions that divert their attention.

Exposure

Teenage drivers do a greater proportion of their driving in risky conditions. In particular, they drive more frequently at night and with multiple passengers. Both of these substantially increase the likelihood of a crash.

The risk of a serious or fatal crash increases sharply in the evening hours (well before midnight). Although the risk is even higher after midnight, young teens do relatively little of their driving that late. Consequently the vast majority (more than 75%) of nighttime crashes among 16- and 17- year-old drivers occur between the hours of 9 p.m. and midnight. Because of this high risk, many states do not allow young drivers to drive at night for the first six months after obtaining a license.

Both developmental factors and the life conditions of young teen drivers — with much travel associated with school and school-related events — result in a tendency to carry more passengers than older drivers. Driving with passengers is particularly dangerous for inexperienced drivers. The risk of a serious or fatal crash increases dramatically with the number of young passengers in the vehicle. For this reason, in many states young beginning drivers are not allowed to carry more than a single young passenger during their first six months driving.