Teenagers & Cars: A Deadly Combination

Teenagers want independence. For many nothing symbolises independence more than obtaining their drivers license. It is one of the clear modern day rites of passage to adulthood. I can still remember the feeling elated at being able to drive myself to and from places without a parent in the car.

The only thing better than being able to drive yourself as a teenager, is being able to drive around with your friends. You don’t need to have a destination necessarily, just the freedom of the open road and the company of your good friends is enough.

However for many the joy of independence and the implicit hope of adulthood is cut tragically short.  While most of us live to tell of lucky escapes in our early days of motorised independence, many don’t.

Motor vehicle accidents continue to cost the lives of a disproportionate number of young people every year.

Some Statistics to Consider

  • Car accidents are responsible for over 60% of deaths among Australian 17-20 year olds.
  • Motor Vehicle accidents are also the leading cause of death for 16-20 year olds in the US.
  • 40% of people who die on Australian road are under the age of 25.
  • 33% of Australian teenagers will have a car crash within the first 12 months of driving.
  • In the US 3,500 were killed in car accidents in 2008, while 350,000 were admitted to hospital due to motor vehicle trauma.
  • A 16-year-old driver is 20 times more likely to have a motor vehicle crash than any other licensed driver.
  • Alcohol consumption is involved in nearly 25% of teenage road accident fatalities

There are definite known risk factors that contribute to the high rate of death and injury amongst teenagers.

The Number of Passengers

A study in the US showed that chance of a 17 year old having a crash in which someone is killed increases by 50% if they have a passenger in the car. However when there are 2 passengers, the risk of a fatality increases by 160%. Then add a third passenger and the chances of a fatal road accident are 200% greater.

Moral to the story is restricting the number of passengers allowed in a car with a teenager driver has been shown to make the world a safer place. However no teenager wants to hear this news, and it seems only a few parents want to break the news to them.

The State of the Teenage Brain

As mentioned in previous posts the adolescent brain is very much a work in progress. Australian Psychologist Steve Biddulph attributes many of the problems with teenage drivers to the still developing adolescent brain.

“The teenage brain is half-developed, it can function well while calm, but lacks the ability to make good decisions when overloaded by stimuli. It is still likely to revert back to emotional decision-making when conditions are not ideal. Every parent knows that teenagers can sound good one minute and be complete idiots the next.”

Biddulph suggests that much of the problem lies with adults placing teenagers in situations they are ill equipped to handle – such as driving a motor car at night with a group of peers.

The Time of Day

Driving at night is a challenging task for all drivers, but even more so for novices. Teenagers do only 20% of their driving at night, yet 50% of teenage fatalities occur at night.The crash rate for teenagers driving at night with passengers is 4 to 5 times more likely than teenagers who drive alone during the day. Some countries, such as New Zealand, have placed a curfew preventing young drivers from being on the road after 10pm and reduced the road toll as a result

Easily Distracted

Teenagers can be very easily distracted.  Even more so when placed in a moving vehicle equipped with radio, cd/mp3 player, air conditioner, friends to talk to, and probably a mobile phone nearby.

In a recent US survey of 2000 16-19 year olds 84% of respondents acknowledged it was dangerous to drive while distracted, yet 86% of them admitting to doing it.

However as we have noted in a previous post adults hardly set a good example in this area.

Lack of Experience

It is a self evident fact that teenagers have been driving for less time than everyone else on the road.  Less experienced drivers are less able to detect and respond to traffic hazards or control of their vehicle when the situation changes rapidly.

The Centers For Disease Control found teenagers are more likely than older drivers to underestimate dangerous situations, to not recognize hazardous situations, to speed, and to allow a shorter gap to the car in front.

What Can Adults Do?

Many parents probably wish they could just ban their child from driving, or getting in a car with anyone other than themselves until they were 25.  You are welcome to try this, but as plan it has some very obvious flaws.

Some less drastic steps could be:

  • Model safe and responsible driving, including not texting or talking on our mobile phone while driving.
  • Insist on a limit to the number of passengers your teenager is allowed to have (1 being preferable).
  • Similarly insist they are to be the only passenger if they are in a car driven by another teenager.
  • Insist your teenager not drive late at night.
  • Enforce these rules by removal of keys for a period if the rules are violated.
  • Stress the dangers of driving and alcohol.  Give them another option to take up (without fear of punishment) if they are out and have been drinking or are with a driver who has been drinking.
  • Continue to regularly  supervise your teenager when they are driving to ensure they are continuing to develop their skills.

Let me know if you have found other ways of reducing the risk of teenagers and cars.

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Showing 7 comments
  • imtheone

    It starts on teenagers. Driving without license is a big issue.

  • Johanna Meka

    Hi Chris, just wondering where your statistics where sourced from? Very confronting stuff but my children dont believe me unless I give them some evidence that it isn’t made up!

  • Louise Hatchet

    You say that you know teenagers really well but sometimes they are just seriously hard to understand and I cant seem to connect with my baby girl like I used to. PLEASE HELP!! She is 14 and just doesn’t care about being healthy anymore. Can you please tell me how to talk to her?

    • Chris

      Hi Louise
      Connecting with your daughter begins with you acknowledging to yourself she is not your baby girl anymore. Time to stop managing and providing for her as though she is your little girl, and instead walk beside her as an interested and concerned “adult” and who she can trust when she is trying to work things out.

      Easy for me to say, hard for you to do. But I sense you need to move on to a new mode of parenting.


    • Chris Hudson

      Hi Louise
      Connecting with your daughter begins with you acknowledging to yourself she is not your baby girl anymore. Time to stop managing and providing for her as though she is your little girl, and instead walk beside her as an interested and concerned “adult” who she can trust when she is trying to work things out.

      Easy for me to say, hard for you to do. But I sense you need to move on to a new mode of parenting.

      email via the contact page if you want more…


  • Stev loc

    It’s all about us parent who takes responsibility for the behavior of our teenager driver. Ever since they are young, I already share some tips and tricks. For 6 months, I never let my son to drive alone until I ensure that he can handle himself. Driving is a skills, I saw a lots of teenager who drives like crazy specially on the high-way. Very dangerous!

    The statistics shows “40% of people who die on Australian road are under the age of 25” this is very alarming. Accident can happen to anyone and anytime. Every driver should know that if accident is not your fault, accident replacement car is available for you. This is by accordance with the law. Check this out this is very helpful: https://www.notmyfault.com.au/

  • Ashish Manhas

    Crash rates increase sharply at the age teenagers begin to drive and remain elevated relative to adult levels well into the twenties. Parents have important roles to play in managing the risk for teenage drivers before and after licensure. Parents can be involved in their teenagers’ driving, allowing them to test for permit and licensure, supervising practice driving, providing access to a vehicle, and setting and enforcing limits on driving privileges after licensure. However, the management practices of many parents may not be sufficient to provide safety effects. The literature indicates that the two most important decisions parents can make to reduce teenagers driving risk is to delay licensure and impose limits on high-risk driving conditions (such as driving at night and with teenage passengers) during the first year of licensure. Two intervention programs have been shown to increase parent limit setting as a means of reducing risky driving behaviors and improving driving performance among novice teenage drivers. This article describes the contexts of and opportunities for parent involvement in teenage driving and the efficacy of interventions to increase and improve parental management of young drivers: https://www.mytbam.com.au

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