The Issues

Biological, mental and developmental changes during adolescence affect the abilities of young drivers behind the wheel. These changes can contribute to teens being impulsive, moody, and emotional. During this time teens also experience important lifestyle changes as a result of school, employment, extracurricular and social activities that can often prevent them from getting enough sleep. Not only do these changes often increase the time spent away from home and from supervision, but they can also result in exposure to new situations, that may involve alcohol and drugs, when teens are surrounded by same-age peers who can influence behaviour.  

Collectively, these factors can create a potentially risky environment– especially for young teens learning to drive. The good news is that strong driver education and Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) programs combined with support from driving mentors and role models can provide young drivers with a safe and controlled setting to help them make informed choices and develop smart driving skills as they learn to drive.

  • Brain Development and Inexperience

The area of the brain that controls decision-making and risk-taking is not fully developed until 21.1 This area, called the pre-frontal cortex, is responsible for planning, logical reasoning and the anticipation of long-term consequences2  -- all skills needed to drive safely. On one hand, the urge to take risks is important because it encourages teens to leave the comforts of home and branch out in the world – to make new friends, try new activities and become more independent. However, risk-taking behaviour in teens when they may not be fully able to anticipate long-term consequences can result in poor decisions behind the wheel such as speeding or street racing.3

Inexperience can also affect young drivers by limiting their ability to monitor the driving environment as a whole, and properly react to changes in the environment. For example young drivers cannot move their eyes as quickly or as often as more experienced drivers.4 This makes it more difficult for them to notice things at the side of the road or around their vehicle such as a cyclist or pedestrian. Fortunately, as young drivers gain experience, their crash rate will decrease.5

1 Williams 2003
2 ECMT 2006
3 Dobbs 2011
4 Isler et al. 2009
5 Mayhew et al. 2003

  • Peers

Around other peers, young drivers strive to appear mature and independent. However this can also make them more likely to take risks. For instance, a 16-year-old driver carrying another 16-year-old passenger has an increased crash risk of 39%. If they are carrying three or more young passengers their crash risk almost doubles.

When teens are behind the wheel with other teen passengers, they have to perform a dual task: control the vehicle/watch the road as well as interact with peers in a way that is acceptable. This could range from becoming distracted by a conversation to drinking and driving while not wearing a seatbelt.6 Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) programs with passenger restrictions that limit same-aged peers are designed to protect teens and have been shown to reduce fatal crashes up to 9% among drivers aged 16 to 17 carrying teen passengers.7

6 TRB 2007
7 Teft et al. 2012

  • Alcohol and Drugs

A young person’s brain is still fragile and developing until the age of 25. During this critical development period, any heavy use of alcohol or drugs can cause permanent damage. Not only can this damage lead to difficulties with learning and memory, but using alcohol or drug at a young age can increase their risk of developing mental health and social problems, such as depression, personality disorders, and drug abuse and alcohol dependency. For instance, youth that begin drinking alcohol before age 14 have a 41% chance of developing alcohol dependence compared to those who wait until 21, who have just a 10% chance of developing dependence.8

Alcohol and/or drug use also increases a driver’s crash risk, and this is especially the case for the already at-risk teen driver. Even when sober, young drivers are overrepresented in fatal crashes: non-drinking young drivers aged 16 to 19 are 1.7 times (1.7x) more likely to experience a fatal crash than the non-drinking average driver.9 Even small amounts of alcohol can significantly increase the crash risk of young drivers. To illustrate, male drivers aged 16 to 20 with a BAC above .15 (almost twice the legal limit) have a crash risk that is more than 40 times (40x) higher than the already elevated crash risk of those aged 35 and older with the same BAC.10

8 Brown and Tapert 2004
9 Mayhew 1982
10 Zador et al. 2000

  • Lack of Sleep

Teens rarely get enough sleep. High school students generally have class from nine to three, hold part time jobs, participate in extracurricular activities and are busy with social activities. To keep up with a busy schedule, sleep is usually the first priority to suffer. High school students need at least nine hours of sleep a night but typically only get seven. At puberty, the adolescent body needs more sleep and the biological clock prefers going to bed later and sleeping in later. Because of social and biological factors limiting the amount of sleep that teens get, fatigue is a common cause of crashes in this age group, especially early in the morning when teens are commuting to school or other activities. To illustrate, in general, 35% of drivers aged 20 to 24 reported nodding off while driving and 28% of 16 to 19 year olds reported the same.11

11 Beirness 2004

  • Parental Influence and Involvement

Parenting style and driving habits are the mold for young drivers’ behaviours. Not only are parents typically the primary driving teachers for young drivers but their own driving styles, viewed by young drivers since an early age, set the tone for what is expected on the road. To learn more about parental involvement and young drivers click here. 


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