Teens 8 times more likely to crash in first few months after getting driver’s license

ROCKVILLE, Md. — Keys to the car in one hand. Brand new driver’s license in the other. Time to celebrate, right? Not so fast! Parents be warned: Teen drivers are eight times more likely to be in an accident or near-miss in the first three months after getting a driver’s license versus their final days with a learner’s permit, according to a new federal study.

In this early solo period, teens are also four times more likely to experiment with risky behaviors — jack-rabbit starts, sudden braking and hard turns — than they were while driving those last three months on a learner’s permit with an experienced driver present.

For the study, researchers with the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) collected data from cameras and software installed in participants’ vehicles. Participants included 90 teenagers and 131 parents in Virginia. The study also compiled how the parents operated the same vehicles over the same time frame, on similar roads and under similar driving conditions.

This was one of the first studies to collect longitudinal information on the same individuals from the beginning of the learner’s permit period through one full year of independent driving.

“Given the abrupt increase in driving risks when teenagers start to drive independently, our findings suggest that they may benefit from a more gradual decrease in adult supervision during the first few months of driving alone,” says study author Bruce Simons-Morton, a senior investigator at NICHD, in a release.

Results of the study are somewhat surprising and somewhat not. Teens are certainly capable of driving as safely as adults, as evidenced by safety records that match adults during the three months prior to getting a driver’s license. But the study found that teen drivers remain at the same high rate for crashes and near-crashes for the first full year of independent driving, though they do begin to slow down a little on riskier driving behaviors.

Researchers believe that the consistently high accident rates over that first full year of independent driving tell us that teenagers are not learning from experience.

The results show that most of the dangerous driving behaviors occur when driving conditions are optimal — in the daytime and on dry roads. Teens tend to revert to their safer learner’s permit-style driving habits under unfavorable driving conditions — nighttime and/or wet roads.

The study found no difference between males and females in risky driving behavior during the learning permit period. Once the teens made the transition to independent driving, however, the boys outpaced the girls in high-risk driving behavior. And while the risky behaviors decreased over time for females, this was not the case for males. For both boys and girls, accident and near-accident rates were the same throughout both driving periods.

“During the learner’s permit period, parents are present, so there are some skills that teenagers cannot learn until they are on their own,” notes lead study author Pnina Gershon. “We need a better understanding of how to help teenagers learn safe driving skills when parents or other adults are not present.”

Researchers hope to improve teen driver safety by decreasing specific driving risks. They will be looking into the elements of the practice driving period as well as the amount of time devoted to it. They also want to find out how other passengers impact driving risk during both driving periods.

The study appears in the Journal of Adolescent Health.