Fatal crash risk for teens with passengers rising, even as traffic deaths show 10-year decline


AUSTIN — New research suggests that novice teenage drivers (age 15-17) are about eight times more likely than young adult drivers (age 18-24) to have a fatal crash if teenage passengers are in the motor vehicle. Moreover, that teen passenger risk has grown greater over the past decade, even as total numbers of crash deaths have dropped dramatically for young drivers.

The analysis by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) looked at ten years of national data on fatal crashes in which teen passengers (age 13-17) were present at the time of the crash. Researchers then compared patterns for novice drivers with those of young adult drivers to arrive at a “relative risk index” to illustrate the greater danger faced by the youngest drivers as compared to those with a few years of driving experience.

The relative risk for novice drivers with one teen passenger increased over the past decade from 3.7 to 5.1, meaning that in 2011 those drivers in fatal crashes were just over five times more likely to have had a young passenger than were young adult drivers. For novice drivers carrying two or more passengers in 2011, the teen passenger / fatal crash connection was 7.7 times more likely, up from 5.9 a decade earlier – a relative increase of about 30 percent.

Researchers did not explore reasons behind the upward trend. However, the study points out that the 10-year period of analysis essentially mirrors the time when text messaging grew from an occasional activity to a practice that now largely defines youth culture.

In addition, research by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association shows that speeding became a more common factor in teen-driver fatal crashes during that decade.

“Total teen fatal crashes per year declined, but the relative risk for young drivers carrying teen passengers actually increased substantially – at this same time, text messaging exploded in American society,” says Russell Henk, a TTI Senior Research Engineer and primary author of the study. “We can’t scientifically state that there’s a direct link between those two things yet, but it seems reasonable to suspect a connection.”

The distraction element is exacerbated by two other safety hurdles that teen drivers face. The first is an overall lack of experience. Having not yet developed basic safe driving skills, teen drivers are at greater risk. The second concerns brain development. Judgment and decision making activities are centered in the prefrontal cortex of the brain – the region of the brain that is the last to develop and isn’t fully developed until about age 25. Consequently, teen drivers lack full (adult) capabilities of understanding and avoiding the negative consequences of risky driving behavior.

Adding to the significance of the worsening trend, researchers say, is that it happened during a time when many states were either implementing or strengthening their graduated driver license (GDL) laws. Those laws are designed to limit the risk exposure for young drivers by prohibiting late-night driving and limiting the number of young passengers they may have in a motor vehicle.

In Texas, a driver under age 18 may not carry more than one passenger under age 21 during the first 12 months of licensed driving (family members excepted). Most other states apply the same restriction, while some allow no passengers at all.

Most of those state GDL laws, including Texas, also prohibit young drivers from talking or texting on cell phones. Even so, research by the National Safety Council shows that more than half of 16- to 17-year old drivers say they have talked on a cell phone while driving, and a third say they have texted behind the wheel.

A growing program sponsored by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and State Farm employs peer-to-peer communication to help teen drivers avoid the most common dangers that they face. Teens in the Driver Seat® has been active in nearly 600 Texas high schools, and it is structured to augment the state’s GDL law. TxDOT also sponsors U in the Driver Seat, a peer-driven safety program designed for college-age drivers.

“Young drivers themselves are a key to addressing the teen driver safety problem in Texas, and TxDOT is proud to support their efforts with Teens in the Driver Seat,” said Carol Rawson, Director of TxDOT’s Traffic Operations Division. “The decline in fatal crashes for the youngest drivers in Texas is even greater than the national average, so we’re encouraged by our progress, but we still have much work to do.”

Teen leaders of the program emphasize their essential role, but they welcome help from adults, as well. “We use peer influence to encourage our friends to follow the state’s GDL law, even after the first 12 months that we’re required to,” said Presley Price, co-chair of the Teens in the Driver Seat Teen Advisory Board. “That’s a message that needs to come from us, but at the same time we believe it’s a message that parents need to reinforce.”

The full report is available at http://tti.tamu.edu/documents/TTI-2013-11.pdf.