David Yang, Ph.D., Executive Director, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
Brian Tefft, Senior Researcher, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
At the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, one of our research areas is vulnerable road users. With May being National Youth Traffic Safety Month, we would like to bring the focus to one specific vulnerable population on our roads: teenage drivers. According to the most recent federal statistics, over 900,000 teen drivers were involved in police-reported motor vehicle crashes in 2015, and those crashes resulted in nearly 350,000 injuries and more than 3,200 deaths. A new analysis by the AAA Foundation found that while the crash rates of teen drivers have improved significantly over the past decade, drivers ages 16-17 are involved in more than 4 times as many crashes as drivers in their thirties, forties, or fifties, per mile that they drive. Older teens, although better, still have more than twice as many crashes per mile driven, compared to drivers in their thirties, forties, or fifties.
While the reasons for teen drivers’ high crash rates are complex, a large part of it boils down to experience. Studies have shown that this is by no means unique to teens, as the crash rates of people who begin driving at older ages generally follow a very similar pattern. However, given the fact that teenage drivers, as a group, have high crash rates due to their lack of experience driving, it is especially important for teens to be attentive behind the wheel. Unfortunately, AAA Foundation research has found that all too often this is not the case.
Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that roughly 14% of all crashes involve some form of distracted driving. However, our research shows that these statistics are only the tip of the iceberg. To improve our understanding on the role of driver distraction in crashes involving teen drivers, the AAA Foundation collaborated with researchers at the University of Iowa and analyzed data from over 2,200 crashes captured on in-vehicle video cameras in the cars of teenage drivers participating in a teen driver safety program with their insurance company between the years of 2007 and 2015. While we didn’t necessarily expect what we saw on camera to align perfectly with the official government statistics, the results were startling: over half of all of the crashes captured by the cameras revealed some form of potentially-distracting behavior by the teen driver in the final seconds leading up to the crash.
What were the most common distractions captured on camera in the final seconds leading up to crashes? In 12% of crashes, the driver was using a cell phone – with looking at the phone or texting being the most prevalent modes of distraction-by-cell-phone. This is a particularly dangerous because it effects the driver in every way – hands off the steering wheel, eyes off the road, and mind away from driving. Most alarmingly, in the 6 seconds leading up to the crash, drivers who we saw texting or looking at their phones spent an average of more than 4 of those precious seconds looking at their phones instead of at the road.
However, cell phone use was not the most common distraction. The most common distraction, in fact, was interacting with passengers, which was a factor in nearly 15% of all of the crashes captured on camera. This comes as no surprise, as previous research by the AAA Foundation found that having one peer passenger in the vehicle increased a teen driver’s mileage-based risk of dying in a crash by nearly half and having two peer passengers doubled the risk. This is why many states do not allow newly licensed young drivers to carry passengers other than family members for their first six months to a year of independent licensed driving.
As we observe National Youth Traffic Safety Month, remember, being a safe driver is a lifelong process that involves accumulating experience. Teenage drivers are only just beginning this process, which makes it even more important to remind them, and help them, to keep their hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, and stay focused on driving.