- Drivers aged 16-19 are a third more likely to die in a crash than drivers aged 40-49 
- One in four 18-24 year olds (23%) crash within two years of passing their driving test 
- Young male drivers are involved in many more crashes than young female drivers 
Why are young drivers more at risk?
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 , but are involved in 9% of fatal and serious crashes where they are the driver . In 2018, 99 drivers aged 17-24 were killed and 1,170 were seriously injured in road crashes .
Worldwide, road crashes are the leading cause of death among young people aged 15-29 . Young drivers are also over-represented in crash statistics compared with older drivers. For example, young drivers aged under 25 make up around one-tenth of the population in OECD countries but represent more than a quarter of drivers killed on the road .
The high level of risk associated with young drivers is due to a combination of youth and inexperience. Their inexperience means they have less ability to spot hazards, and their youth means they are particularly likely to take risks like dangerous overtaking or speeding. This not only means that crash risk reduces over time with experience, but also that people who start driving at a younger age are less likely to be involved in a collision .
Below are some of the specific characteristics of young drivers that put them at high risk of crashes.
Although the human brain has mostly stopped growing by the end of a person’s teenage years, it continues to go through a period of extensive remodelling. This strengthens connections between nerve cells and enables information to be processed more efficiently . This period is critical for the development of the pre-frontal cortex (part of the frontal lobe), which plays an important role in regulating impulsive behaviour, and the ability to anticipate the consequences of behaviour.
The pre-frontal cortex does not reach full maturity until people are at least in their mid-20s.
Meanwhile, the limbic region, which is associated with emotional responses, is over-active between the ages of 15 and 24. Increased limbic activity means that young people are more likely to be influenced by their peers and are more likely to indulge in thrill-seeking behaviour.
This period of development means young drivers are often more likely to take risks and less able to regulate their impulses or understand the consequences of their decisions.
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 .
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As drivers gain experience on the road, they become less likely to crash and more likely to drive in a manner that is attentive, careful, responsible and safe . However, many young drivers are still overconfident in their ability to drive safely.
Over-confidence can lead to dangerous driving behaviours including:
- Harsh braking
Research has shown 98% of drivers aged 17-25 think of themselves as safe, and 42% believe they are very safe . Instead, many attribute young drivers’ collisions to the actions of a reckless few.
However, while the practical skills of driving can be mastered quickly, some (less obvious) skills such as hazard perception require more experience . This means young drivers may think they are in control when they are actually driving unsafely , and become more likely to take risks as they believe their skills are improving . 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 .
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 .
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 . 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 .
Common risky behaviours
Young people often drive too fast because they underestimate the risks associated with speeding, and crashes occur because they do not have to react to a dangerous situation and control their vehicle to avoid a collision. Excessive or inappropriate speed a key contributor towards crashes involving young drivers in the UK and elsewhere. Across Europe, speed contributes to 30% of all crashes involving young male drivers and 21% of crashes involving young female drivers . This compares to only 15% of older drivers’ crashes.
The younger the driver, the more likely they are to be involved in a crash caused by speed. This is particularly the case for young men, who are much more likely to be involved in a fatal crash caused by speeding than young female drivers .
Drink and drug driving
Drivers in their 20s have the highest rate of drink-driving crashes and the second-highest rate of drug driving crashes after 16-19 year olds  . In 2017, 160 people were killed or seriously injured in crashes involving a young driver who was over the drink-drive limit .
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 .
Even low levels of alcohol in the blood can make a young driver significantly more likely to be involved in a road crash. With a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.02-0.05% (equivalent to two drinks), a young driver aged 16-19 is seven times more likely to be killed in a crash than a sober driver of any age .
Not wearing seat belts
Young drivers and passengers are less likely to always wear seat belts , 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 .
Any phone call at the wheel can cause a distraction, including hands-free conversations. Drivers speaking on a phone experience ‘visual tunnelling’ that limits their field of vision, putting them and other road users at risk.
Young drivers need to concentrate more on driving than more experienced drivers, which makes them more susceptible to distraction, for example from mobile phones . 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 . American research has found that 60% of young drivers admit writing texts or emails while driving, and 77% admit speaking on a phone .
Other risk factors
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 . 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 .
Driving at night
Young drivers have a higher proportion of crashes in the evenings and early mornings . 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 . It may also be because drivers at night are more likely to be driving tired .
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.
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
New drivers are subject to more restrictions than more experienced drivers. A person’s licence can be revoked if they accumulate six penalty points within two years of passing their driving test.
The Government is currently consulting on new measures to make young drivers safer on the roads. These measures form part of an approach known as ‘graduated driver licensing’. The proposals include banning young drivers from travelling at night, introducing a minimum learning period, and not driving with passengers under a certain age in the vehicle .
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.
Evidence suggests that introducing graduated driver licensing in Great Britain could save at least 4,471 casualties, and this is a conservative estimate .
Research has found that fatal collisions involving young drivers have reduced by 9% in countries that have introduced GDL schemes, while overall casualties have reduced by 5% .
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 .
The proportion of young drivers holding a full driving licence has decreased since the early 1990s. In 1997/97, 43% of 17-20 year olds held a driving licence, compared with 31% in 2016 .
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 . 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.
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 .
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 .
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.
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Page last updated: April 2020