Teen Drivers: Get the Facts
Motor vehicle crashes are the second leading cause of death for U.S. teens.1 Teen motor vehicle crashes are preventable, and proven strategies can improve the safety of young drivers on the road.
How big is the problem?
In 2018, almost 2,500 teens in the United States aged 13–19 were killed, and about 285,000 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor vehicle crashes.1 That means that every day, about seven teens aged 13–19 died due to motor vehicle crashes, and hundreds more were injured. In addition, fatal and nonfatal motor vehicle crash injuries among teens 13–19 years of age resulted in about $11.8 billion in medical and work loss costs for crashes that occurred in 2018.1
Who is most at risk?
The risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among teens aged 16–19 than among any other age group. In fact, per mile driven, teen drivers in this age group are nearly three times as likely as drivers aged 20 or older to be in a fatal crash.2
Teens who are at especially high risk for motor vehicle crashes are:
In 2018, the motor vehicle death rate for male drivers aged 16–19 was almost two times higher than the death rate for female drivers of the same age.2
Teens driving with teen passengers
The presence of teen passengers increases the crash risk of unsupervised teen drivers. This risk increases with each additional teen passenger.3,4
Newly licensed teens
Crash risk is particularly high during the first months of licensure.5–7 Data from the 2016–2017 National Household Travel Survey indicate that the crash rate per mile driven is about 1.5 times as highexternal icon for 16-year-olds as it is for 18–19-year-olds.2
What factors can put teens at risk?
Teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate or not be able to recognize dangerous situations.8,9 Teens are also more likely than adults to make critical decision errors that can lead to serious crashes.10
Nighttime and Weekend Driving:
In 2018, 37% of motor vehicle crash deaths among teen drivers and passengers aged 13–19 occurred between 9 pm and 6 am, and 52% occurred on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.2
Not Using Seat Belts:
Compared with other age groups, teens and young adults often have the lowest seat belt use rates.11 For example, results from the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) Controlled Intersection study from 2016–2018 indicate that seat belt use among teens and young adults (16–24 years of age) was approximately 87% each year, whereas seat belt use among adults (25 years of age or older) was 90% or higher for each year during the same period.11
In 2019, 43.1% of U.S. high school students did not always wear a seat belt when riding in a car driven by someone else.12
Among teen drivers and passengers 16–19 years of age who died in car crashes in 2018, almost half were unrestrained at the time of the crash (when restraint use was known).2
Distraction negatively effects driving performance for all drivers but can be especially dangerous for young, inexperienced drivers.
Results from the 2019 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed that, among U.S. high school students who drove, 39.0% texted or e-mailed while driving at least once during the 30 days before the survey.12
Teens are more likely than older drivers to speed and allow shorter headways (the distance from the front of one vehicle to the front of the next).13
In 2018, 30% of male drivers aged 15–20 years and 18% of female drivers aged 15–20 years who were involved in fatal crashes were speeding. These were the highest percentages by sex as compared with all other age groups.14
Drinking any amount of alcohol before driving increases crash risk among teen drivers as compared with older drivers.2,15 Teen drivers have a much higher risk for being involved in a crash than older drivers at the same blood alcohol concentration (BAC), even at BAC levels below the legal limit for adults.15
Results from the 2019 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey12 revealed the following:
Among U.S. high school students who drove, 5.4% drove when they had been drinking alcohol during the 30 days before the survey.12
Driving after drinking alcohol was higher among students who were older, male, Hispanic, or had lower grades.12
16.7% of U.S high school students rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol during the 30 days before the survey.12
Riding with a drinking driver was higher among Hispanic students or students with lower grades.12
Students who engaged in any of the other transportation risk behaviors—measured by the survey were approximately 3–13 times as likely to have also engaged in driving after drinking alcohol at least once during the 30 days before the survey.12
Drinking alcohol is illegal for individuals less than 21 years of age, as is driving after drinking any amount of alcohol. Despite this, in 2017, 24% of drivers aged 15–20 who were killed in fatal motor vehicle crashes had been drinking.16
In 2018, 15% of drivers aged 16–20 involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes had a BAC of 0.08% or higher – a level that is illegal for adults aged 21 or older in all U.S. states (Note: Utah has a BAC limit of 0.05%).17
In 2017, 58% of drivers aged 15–20 who were killed in motor vehicle crashes after drinking and driving were not wearing a seat belt (based on known restraint use).16
For young drivers involved in fatal crashes, alcohol involvement is typically higher among male drivers than among female drivers. In 2017, 20% of male drivers aged 15–20 years and 15% of female drivers aged 15–20 years involved in fatal crashes had been drinking prior to the crash.16
There are proven methods to help teens become safer drivers. Learn what research has demonstrated that parents can do to keep teen drivers safe from these risks.
Seat Belts Save Lives
At least 47% of teen drivers and passengers who died in passenger vehicle crashes in 2018 were not wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash.2 Research shows that seat belts reduce serious crash-related injuries and deaths by about halfexternal icon .23
Primary Enforcement of Seat Belt Laws
States vary in their enforcement of seat belt laws. A primary enforcement seat belt law allows police officers to ticket drivers or passengers for not wearing a seat belt, even if this is the only violation that has occurred. A secondary enforcement seat belt law allows police officers to ticket drivers or passengers for not wearing a seat belt only if they have pulled over the driver for another reason. Some states have secondary enforcement seat belt laws for adults but have primary enforcement seat belt laws for young drivers. Seat belt use among all age groups is consistently higher in states with primary enforcement seat belt laws than in states with secondary enforcement seat belt laws.24,25 Visit the seat belt and child seat laws by state webpageexternal icon on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s website for up-to-date information on seat belt laws by state, including the type of enforcement and who is covered.26 CDC also recently published state-specific fact sheets that provide a snapshot of motor vehicle occupant deaths and seat belt use, and an overview of proven strategies for increasing the use of seat belts, car seats, and booster seats. You can also use CDC’s Motor Vehicle Prioritizing Interventions and Cost Calculator for States (MV PICCS) to learn about how many lives could be saved, injuries prevented, and costs averted if your state were to implement a primary enforcement seat belt law.27
Not Drinking & Driving Prevents Crashes
Maintaining and enforcing minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) laws and zero tolerance laws for drivers under age 21 is recommended to help prevent drinking and driving among young drivers.28–30
Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) Systems Reduce Fatal Crashes
Driving is a complex skill, one that must be practiced to be learned well. Teenagers’ lack of driving experience, together with risk-taking behavior, heightens their risk for crashes. The need for skill-building and driving supervision for new drivers is the basis for graduated driver licensing (GDL) systems. Although varied, GDL systems exist in all U.S. states and Washington, D.C. GDL systems provide longer practice periods, limit driving under high-risk conditions for newly licensed drivers, and require greater participation from parents as their teens learn to drive. Research suggests that more comprehensive GDL systems are associated with 26%31 to 41%32 reductions in fatal crashes and 16%33 to 22%34 reductions in overall crashes among 16-year-old drivers. Parents can help their teens be safer by knowing and following their state’s GDL laws.
Check out GDL laws by stateexternal icon on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s website to learn more about your state’s GDL laws.
CDC’s GDL Planning Guide can assist states in assessing, developing, and implementing actionable plans to strengthen GDL practices. CDC’s new State-Specific Fact Sheets on Costs of Motor Vehicle Crash Deaths contain recommendations of proven strategies for each state, including recommendations that could strengthen each state’s GDL system.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC). WISQARS (Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; July 2020. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/index.html . Accessed 1 October 2020.
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Fatality Facts 2018: Teenagers. Highway Loss Data Institute; December 2019. Available at https://www.iihs.org/topics/fatality-statistics/detail/teenagersexternal icon . Accessed 6 October 2020.
Chen L, Baker SP, Braver ER, Li G. Carrying passengers as a risk factor for crashes fatal to 16- and 17-year-old drivers. JAMA 2000;283(12):1578–1582.
Ouimet MC, Pradhan AK, Brooks-Russell A, Ehsani JP, Berbiche D, Simons-Morton BG. Young Drivers and Their Passengers: A Systematic Review of Epidemiological Studies on Crash Risk. J Adolesc Health 2015;57(1 Suppl):S24–35.
Mayhew DR, Simpson HM, Pak A. Changes in collision rates among novice drivers during the first months of driving. Accid Anal Prev 2003;35(5):683–691.
McCartt AT, Shabanova VI, Leaf WA. Driving experience, crashes and traffic citations of teenage beginning drivers. Accid Anal Prev 2003;35(3):311–320.
Gershon P, Ehsani JP, Zhu C, Sita KR, Klauer S, Dingus T, Simons-Morton B. Crash Risk and Risky Driving Behavior Among Adolescents During Learner and Independent Driving Periods. J Adolesc Health 2018;63(5):568–574.
McKnight AJ, McKnight AS. Young novice drivers: careless or clueless? Accid Anal Prev 2003;35(6):921–925.
Lee SE, Klauer SG, Olsen ECB, Simons-Morton BG, Dingus TA, Ramsey DJ, Ouimet MC. Detection of Road Hazards by Novice Teen and Experienced Adult Drivers. Transp Res Rec 2008;2078:26–32.
McDonald CC, Curry AE, Kandadai V, Sommers MS, Winston FK. Comparison of teen and adult driver crash scenarios in a nationally representative sample of serious crashes. Accid Anal Prev 2014;72:302–308.
Enriquez, J. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Occupant Restraint Use in 2018: Results From the NOPUS Controlled Intersection Study (Report No. DOT HS 812 781). U.S. Department of Transportation; August 2019. Available at: https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812781external icon . Accessed 6 October 2020.
Yellman MA, Bryan L, Sauber-Schatz EK, Brener N. Transportation Risk Behaviors Among High School Students – Youth Risk Behavior Survey, United States, 2019. MMWR Suppl 2020;69(Suppl-1):77–83.
Simons-Morton B, Lerner N, Singer J. The observed effects of teenage passengers on the risky driving behavior of teenage drivers. Accid Anal Prev 2005;37(6):973–982.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Traffic Safety Facts 2018: Speeding (Report No. DOT HS 812 932). U.S. Department of Transportation; April 2020. Available at: https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812932external icon . Accessed 6 October 2020.
Voas RB, Torres P, Romano E, Lacey JH. Alcohol-related risk of driver fatalities: an update using 2007 data. J Stud Alcohol Drugs 2012;73(3):341–350.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Traffic Safety Facts 2017: Young Drivers (Report No. DOT HS 812 753). U.S. Department of Transportation; May 2019. Available at: https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812753external icon . Accessed 6 October 2020.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Traffic Safety Facts 2018: Alcohol-Impaired Driving (Report No. DOT HS 812 864). U.S. Department of Transportation; December 2019. Available at: https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812864external icon . Accessed 6 October 2020.