Question: Too often I read or hear about young people involved in serious car crashes. I’m guessing that’s because they’re in them more often than experienced drivers. Why are they crashing more? Are they not getting enough training? What can we do about it?
Answer: You’re right, young drivers are involved in a lot of crashes. Way too many, actually.
As a demographic, we usually consider young drivers to be between the ages of 16 and 25. Drivers of this age make up less than 15 percent of the driving population, but in 2017 they were involved in 29 percent of all fatal crashes in Washington state.
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teens and young adults, and when a young driver is involved in a fatal crash, 75 percent of the time it’s their fault. As to why they crash more, there are multiple reasons.
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One reason certainly is training. In Washington a new driver aged 16-17 is required to complete a driver education program to get a license. If they pass the driver test, they get an intermediate license that has additional rules, including limiting night time driving and the number of young passengers in the car.
New drivers age 18 and older do not have to complete driver training to get a license.
In 2017 there were nine fatal crashes in Washington that involved a driver age 16-17. There were 57 fatal crashes involving a driver age 18-20. That’s a good indicator that proper driver training has a major impact on fatal crashes.
Another reason is impaired driving. Between 2012 and 2014, impairment was a factor in 57 percent of all young driver-involved fatal crashes.
Shortly after young drivers get a license, they reach the legal drinking age. Here’s a tragically interesting piece of data: A young driver who gets a license at age 16 and dies in a crash, on average, dies around age 21. A young driver who gets a license at age 19 and dies in a crash, on average, also dies around age 21. In fact, the most likely age for anyone who gets a license before turning 21 to die in a crash is about 21 years old.
Also, people under the age of 25 are generally worse at assessing risk. Studies show that our brains don’t fully develop until we’re around 25 years old, and the part of our brain that helps us make good decisions seems to be the last part to get it together.
I suppose we could delay driver licensing until 25, but that seems unrealistic. Part of solution needs to be teaching new drivers more than the rules of the road. Drivers need to also understand traffic safety culture, adopting a mindset that getting a license is a starting point for driver safety and proficiency, not proof that we know all there is to know about safe driving.
Now for the last part of your question, “What can we do about it?”
As a state, we’ve made steps forward with things like the intermediate driver license. Washington is in the midst of revising its driver training requirements, creating a curriculum based on best practices for driver training.
I expect that we’ll see a move toward an approach that not only teaches new drivers the rules of the road, but also prepares their still-developing brain to evaluate themselves as safe drivers.
We could also make the driving test harder. In England, driver’s ed isn’t required, but their driving test is so challenging that new drivers won’t pass the test without professional training.
Does that work? The United Kingdom has a traffic fatality rate of 2.9 deaths per 100,000 people per year; in the U.S. we have 10.6 deaths per 100,000 people.
As a matter of context, globally that ranks us at 63rd out of 181; we’re just below Lithuania and a bit above Uzbekistan. Among the 20 most developed nations, we’re last.
Most challenging, but probably most importantly, we could change our cultural attitudes about driving.
As an exercise, take an hour to count how many people you see distracted by their phones or other activities.
Or let the state count for you. Based on recent statewide observations, at any given moment about 10 percent of drivers are doing some distracting activity unrelated to driving and about 75 percent of those activities involve a phone.
Our future drivers are growing up observing our attitudes about driving and adopting them for themselves. The top three factors in young driver fatal crashes are impairment, speed and distraction. Guess what? Those are also the top factors for experienced drivers.
If we want our young people to be safer on the roads, we can start by giving them a better example.
Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.