In 1996, the National Safety Council dedicated the month of June as National Safety Month to create awareness of occupational hazards and preventable injuries that can lead to death. This National Safety Month lets us look beyond the workplace. While most teens don’t face workplace accidents on a regular basis, they’re at increased risk for another kind of accident: fatal car crashes.
Teens look forward to getting a driver’s permit—their first step toward a full driver’s license and the independence that comes with driving. However, our brains continue developing into our mid-to-late 20s, and the prefrontal cortex, associated with planning and decision-making, matures later than other parts. This means the excitement of this newfound freedom can cloud a teen’s decision-making skills when it comes to driving safely.
Motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death among teens in the United States in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the same year, as covered in Accident and Safety Information for Teens, Third Edition, the CDC reported that approximately 2,800 teens aged 13 to 19 died, and 227,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes. Fatality Facts 2020, a report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), indicates that teens aged 16 to 17 are at the highest risk for fatal crashes.
Another study by the CDC found that teens aged 16 through 19 have triple the rate of fatal crashes per mile driven compared to drivers aged 20 or older. The risk of death by motor vehicle crashes among males aged 16 to 19 was three times the rate of females of the same age group. The overall crash risk was 1.5 times higher among newly licensed teens aged 16 than even for 18- or 19-year-old drivers.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2020:
Factors that increase the risk of motor vehicle crashes for teens include:
As new drivers, teens have yet to develop the quick reflexes to navigate dangerous situations. They also lack the experience to recognize unsafe driving in other cars and anticipate risks from bad roads, pedestrians, and weather.
Driving requires a person to be alert always. Talking on the phone or texting while driving, playing loud music, eating, or talking with passengers may distract the teen driver and lead to an accident. According to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 39% of high schoolers texted or emailed at least once while driving 30 days before the survey. Data from the CDC and the NHTSA stated that 321 fatal crashes involving distracted driving occurred in the age group 15 to 20 in 2020—a number higher compared to any other age groups—and that 6 percent of distracted driving fatalities involved a teenager.
Teens are more likely to break speed limits, engage in drag racing on a dare or just for fun, make illegal turns, make sudden lane changes, or tailgate the car in front of them. In 2020, 35 percent of males and 18 percent of females aged 15 to 20 were involved in fatal crashes due to speeding, NHTSA reports.
Driving under the influence is dangerous for experienced and inexperienced drivers alike and can lead to fatal crashes. Although the legal drinking age in the United States is 21, many teens engage in underage drinking. A CDC study found that, in 2020, 17% of drivers aged 15 to 20 involved in fatal car crashes had a BAC of .08 g/dl or higher (.08 g/dl is the legal alcohol limit for adults in the United States). There is no legal limit for alcohol in those under age 21.
In 2020, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reported that 56% of teen drivers and passengers aged 16 to 19 who were killed in car crashes were not wearing seatbelts. This simple precaution saves lives, but many teens overlook it.
Illicit drugs, including marijuana, can impair judgment, slow reaction time, and affect motor coordination, much like alcohol. The CDC reports that marijuana usage is linked to an increased risk for crashes. Driving under the influence of marijuana is illegal in every state, regardless of the state’s laws on medical and recreational marijuana use. Despite the risks and illegality, a 2017 survey of teens and parents sponsored by Students Against Destructive Decisions and insurance company Liberty Mutual revealed that 33 percent of teens and 27 percent of parents thought driving under the influence of marijuana was legal in states where marijuana is legal for adult recreational use. While 88 percent of teens regarded drinking and driving as dangerous, only 68 percent believed it was dangerous to drive under the influence of marijuana. In the same year, 49 percent of teens aged 14 to 18 (who currently use marijuana) said they engaged in driving after using marijuana.
Motor vehicle crashes are preventable. Here are some measures parents and caregivers can take to ensure their teens learn to be safe drivers: