Young drivers

Young drivers (17-24 years old) are at a much higher risk of crashing than older drivers. Drivers aged 17-19 only make up 1.5% of UK licence holders [1], but are involved in 9% of fatal and serious crashes where they are the driver [1a].

Data on British drivers shows that:

  • Drivers aged 16-19 are a third more likely to die in a crash than drivers aged 40-49 [2].
  • One in four 18-24 year olds (23%) crash within two years of passing their driving test [3].
  • Young male drivers are involved in many more crashes than young female drivers [4].
Take action: Support Brake’s L for Later campaign to reduce young driver deaths.

Why are young drivers more at risk?

Research shows that the combination of youth and inexperience puts younger drivers at high risk. Their inexperience means they have less ability to spot hazards, and their youth means they are particularly likely to take risks. In this way, crash risk not only reduces over time with experience but also is higher for drivers who start driving at a younger age [5].

Below are some of the specific characteristics of young drivers that put them at high risk of crashes.


Young people quickly pick up the physical skills of driving and, as a result, feel they have mastered it and are often over-confident about their driving ability. However, while the practical skills of driving can be mastered quickly, some (less obvious) skills such as hazard perception require more experience [6]. This means young drivers may think they are in control when they are actually driving unsafely [7], and become more likely to take risks as they believe their skills are improving [8]. Research has found that young drivers who show overconfidence in self-assessment of their skills are more likely to crash in their first two years of driving than those who are insecure about their driving skills [9].

Poor assessment of hazards

Although some hazards on the road are easy to identify, there are some situations where hazards are not immediately obvious. It often takes experience to notice these hidden hazards, so inexperienced young drivers may not notice them and react in time. Research has shown young drivers show poorer attention, visual awareness, hazard recognition and avoidance, and are less able to judge appropriate speed for circumstances [10]. 

Driving requires constantly balancing the attention needed for practical tasks such as steering and changing gears, and more cognitively demanding tasks such as hazard identification [11]. Because of their inexperience young drivers need to concentrate more on practical tasks, so are slower to switch between tasks and slower to react to hazards [12].

Prevalent risk-taking

Brake research has found that young drivers are more likely to take many of the most serious risks, including speeding, overtaking blind, driving on drugs, and not wearing seat belts [13]. This may be because the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that helps control impulses and emotions and assesses risk, is not fully developed until your mid-20s [14].

Young people also underestimate certain high-risk behaviours. For example, research has shown that young drivers are less likely than older drivers to rate speeding as high risk [15]. 

Take action: Run a community campaign with young people, with Brake's help.

Common risky behaviours


Excessive or inappropriate speed is known to be a key contributory factor in crashes involving young drivers in the UK [16] and elsewhere. Research has found that a third of fatal young driver crashes in the USA are speed-related [17].

Learn more: Read our fact pages on the risks of speeding.

Drink and drug driving

Drivers in their 20s have the highest rates of both drink and drug driving crashes [18]. Young drivers who crash are twice as likely to be impaired by alcohol as older drivers who crash, and this is far more common among young men than young women [19]. The prevalence of drug driving is harder to measure due to inconsistent reporting, but one study found that almost one in 10 (9%) of 17-24 year olds in the UK admit having driven on drugs [20].

Learn more: Read our fact pages on drink driving and drug driving.

Not wearing seat belts

Young drivers and passengers are less likely to always wear seat belts [21], and may not belt up when in a car with friends due to peer pressure. American research has found that seat belt use by young drivers decreases as the number of young passengers they carry increases [22].

Learn more: Read our fact page on seat belts and crash protection.

Mobile phones

Young drivers need to concentrate more on driving than more experienced drivers, which makes them more susceptible to distraction, for example from mobile phones [23]. Despite this, evidence suggests young drivers are more likely than older drivers to use their mobile phones at the wheel: a Brake survey found that 19% of young drivers admitted texting at the wheel at least once a month, compared with 11% of older drivers taking this risk [24]. American research has found that 80% of young drivers make or receive phone calls while driving and 72% text [25].

Learn more: Read our fact page on the risks of distraction.

Other risk factors

Carrying passengers

Research shows that peer pressure can encourage bad driving and result in drivers ‘showing off’ to their passengers and taking more risks. 16-17 year-old drivers are up to four times more likely to die in a crash when carrying young passengers than when driving alone, but 62% less likely when carrying older adult passengers, indicating it is peer pressure rather than simply the presence of passengers that raises the risk [26]. Young passengers can also cause distraction: teenage drivers are six times more likely to have a serious incident when there is loud conversation in the vehicle [27].

Driving at night

Young drivers have a higher proportion of crashes in the evenings and early mornings. This is particularly true for young male drivers: in the UK, male drivers aged 17-20 are seven times more likely to crash than all male drivers, but between the hours of 2am and 5am their risk is 17 times higher [28]. Young drivers’ high risk at night is thought to be because they are most likely to be driving for recreational purposes, and more likely to be drunk or drugged, or taking risks such as speeding due to peer pressure [29]. It may also be because drivers at night are more likely to be driving tired [30].

Driving at night also requires extreme care. Young drivers may be under the impression that because roads are quieter at night it is safer for them to speed or pay less attention. In fact, driving at night takes more care due to poorer visibility, and greater likelihood of drink drivers or drunk pedestrians on the roads. 

Learn more: Read our fact page on the risks of driving tired.

Unsafe vehicles

Studies have found that young drivers involved in crashes tend to be driving older vehicles [31]. Young drivers often drive older, potentially unsafe vehicles as these are cheaper. This is risky because older vehicles are less safe: they have less advanced crash protection, so crashes involving older vehicles are more likely to be fatal [32].

Learn more: Read our fact page on vehicle maintenance.

What can be done to improve the safety of young people?

To help young people be safer on our roads, we need a better driver training and testing system, better alternatives to driving for young people, and investment in monitoring technology for young drivers. These recommendations are outlined below.

Graduated driver licensing

Graduated driver licensing (GDL) allows new drivers to build up their driving skills and experience gradually through a more staged and structured approach to learning to drive, including a minimum learning period followed by a post-test novice driver period with licence restrictions. This restricted novice period helps to limit the exposure of new drivers to the dangerous situations highlighted above, including driving at night and carrying passengers. Graduated driver licensing has been shown to be effective in reducing casualties in numerous other countries [33].

Learn more: Read our fact page on graduated driver licensing.

Provide better alternatives to driving

Because of young people’s propensity for risk-taking, due to the late development of the brain’s frontal lobe (see ‘increased risk-taking’, above), the younger you are when you get a driving licence the greater the risk. A UK study predicted that young people would have 9% fewer crashes in their first year of driving if they delayed learning to drive until 18 years old rather than 17, and a further 8% fewer if they delayed until 19 years old [34].

Encouraging young people to delay or avoid learning to drive can therefore have a significant impact on safety. Many young people learn to drive as soon as possible because they feel they have little other option for getting around. A Brake and Direct Line survey found almost half of drivers (48%), and three in ten young people (28%), think public transport is not good enough to provide a realistic alternative to driving in their area [35]. Brake believes improving access to and affordability of public transport, and walking and cycling routes to workplaces and colleges, should be a priority for central government and local authorities.

Learn more: Read our fact page on sustainable and active travel.

Monitor and influence young drivers through technology

Some insurers offer ‘black box’ technology to young drivers. These devices monitor their speed and the times they are on the road, and can be used to set curfews so young drivers are not able to drive during high-risk hours, i.e. late at night. Young drivers abiding by these rules can be given discounts on their insurance, which has been shown to be an effective incentive to reduce young driver speeds [36].

Black boxes can also be used to allow parents to monitor young drivers’ behaviour: as well as providing peace of mind for the parents and guardians of young drivers, parental monitoring has been found to reduce risky driving [37].

Voluntary codes

In the US, parent/young driver agreements are popular. The new driver is allowed to drive the family car or their own car, unsupervised, if they agree to certain conditions for the first year or two of driving. The conditions include restrictions on carrying passengers and driving at night, similar to formal restrictions imposed under GDL (as above). Although not legally binding, parents could enforce the rules by stating, for example, that their teenager is not allowed to drive for a week if they break any of the rules.

Learn more: Download a sample Safe Driving Agreement produced by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA).
Take action: if you’re a young person or work with young people, get involved in Brake’s work promoting safe and sustainable road use among this age group.

[1] Full and provisional driving licences by age and gender, Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, 2015

[1a] Reported road casualties Great Britain 2014, Department for Transport, 2015, table RAS30011

[2] Reported road casualties Great Britain 2014, Department for Transport, 2015, table RAS30025

[3] Young drivers at risk, The AA, 2012

[4] Reported road casualties Great Britain 2014, Department for Transport, 2015, table RAS30011

[5] Cohort Study of learner and Novice Drivers: Part 3, Accidents, Offences and Driving Experience in the First Three Years of Driving, Transport Research Laboratory, 1995

[6] Effects of higher-order driving skill training on young, inexperienced drivers, The University of Waikato, 2011

[7] Young driver accidents in the UK: the influence of age, experience, and time of day, The University of Nottingham, 2006

[8] Young drivers make fewer steering errors but take more risks as they gain experience, Centre for Automotive Safety Research, 2012

[9] A longitudinal study of calibration in young novice drivers, SWOV, 2010

[10] Young novice drivers: careless or clueless? Accident Analysis and Prevention, 2003

[11] Driver control theory: from task difficulty homeostasis to risk allostasis. In Porter, B. (Ed.), Handbook of Traffic Psychology, 2011

[12] Young driver characteristics and capabilities, Federal Highway Administration, 2001

[13] Young Drivers, Brake and Direct Line, 2012

[14] The adolescent brain: why teenagers think and act differently, EDinformatics, 2009

[15] Accident risk and risk taking behaviour among younger drivers, Accident Analysis and Prevention, 1986

[16] Impact of education, training and publicity on young and emerging drivers, Devon County Council, 2010

[17] A third of fatal young driver crashes in the USA are speed-related, Governors Highway Safety Association, 2013

[18] Self-reported drink and drug driving: Finding from the Crime Survey for England and Wales 2012/13, Department for Transport, 2014

[19] Reported road accidents involving young car drivers: Great Britain 2011, Department for Transport, 2012

[20] Young drug-drivers 'on the rise', RAC, 2012

[21] CCIS final reports on crash analysis, Cooperative Crash Injury Study, 2008

[22] Factors related to seat belt use among fatally injured teenage drivers, Journal of Safety Research, 2004

[23] Reaction times of drivers distracted by mobile phone conversations, Queensland University of Technology, 2013

[24] Driver distraction, Brake and Direct Line, 2014

[25] 80% of young novice drivers in the USA make or receive phone calls while driving, National Institutes of Health, 2013

[26] Young drivers at higher risk of crashing when carrying young passengers, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 2012

[27] Distracted Driver Behaviors and Distracting Conditions Among Adolescent Drivers, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2014

[28] Night-time Accidents, Centre for Transport Studies, University College London, 2005

[29] Reported road accidents involving young car drivers: Great Britain 2011, Department for Transport, 2012

[30] Fatigue and Road Safety: A Critical Analysis of Recent Evidence, UK Department for Transport, 2011

[31] CCIS final reports on crash analysis, Cooperative Crash Injury Study, 2008

[32] How Vehicle Age and Model Year Relate to Driver Injury Severity in Fatal Crashes, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2013

[33] Graduated Driver Licensing—A Review of Some of the Current Systems, Transport Research Laboratory, 2001

[34] Cohort Study of learner and Novice Drivers: Part 3, Accidents, Offences and Driving Experience in the First Three Years of Driving, Transport Research Laboratory, 1995

[35] Are you ready to drive? Brake and Direct Line, 2013

[36] Effects of Pay-As-You-Drive vehicle insurance on young drivers’ speed choice, The University of Groningen, 2011

[37] Teenage drivers less likely to take risks driving when incidents are reported to parents, National Institutes of Health, USA, 2013

Page last updated: October 2014

Tags: mobile phone young drivers graduated licencing road crash technology seat belt advice