In this fact page we will cover:

  • Why young drivers are at risk on the roads
  • Key risk factors for young drivers
  • Common risky behaviours
  • What can be done to improve young driver safety
  • Novice drivers and the law
Globally, road traffic crashes are a leading cause of death among young people, and the main cause of death among those aged 15–29 years.

Why young drivers are at risk on the roads

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.

Characteristics of young drivers that put them at high risk of crashes Down arrow icon to open accordion

Brain development

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.

Over-confidence

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:

  • Overtaking
  • Speeding
  • Tailgating
  • Harsh braking
  • Racing

The practical skills of driving can be mastered quickly, however, 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.

Research has shown 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.

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.

Young driver statistics

1 in 2
1 in 5
4,000+

Key risk factors for young drivers

Carrying passengers

Research shows that peer pressure can encourage bad driving and result
in drivers ‘showing off’ to their passengers and taking more risks. Newly qualified drivers with a car full of passengers of similar age are four times more likely to be in a fatal crash, compared with when driving alone. However, when carrying older adult passengers, young drivers are less likely to crash, indicating it is peer pressure rather than simply the presence of passengers that raises the risk.

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.


Common risky behaviour of young drivers

Speeding

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 is a key contributor towards crashes involving young drivers in the UK and elsewhere.

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.

Improved licencing

With inexperience a key factor in the increased risk facing young drivers, a more stringent licensing system could significantly improve young driver safety.


Novice drivers and the law

Penalty points and disqualification are slightly different for novice drivers, in acknoweledgement of the increased risk they face on the roads.

Your licence will be cancelled (revoked) if you get 6 or more points within 2 years of passing your test.

Those whose licences are cancelled within two years have to apply and pay for a new provisional licence and pass both theory and practical parts of the driving or riding test again to get a full licence.

Points on provisional licenses

Any penalty points on provisional licences that have not expired are carried over to the full licence when someone has passed their test.