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Status Report, Vol. 42, No. 1 | January 27, 2007 Subscribe

New study looks at how and why beginning drivers get into crashes

Teenagers with brand new licenses get into far more crashes than older people — more even than older teens. This has been known for years, and new Institute research addresses why crash rates are so high during the first months of licensure. Based on a study of crashes involving 16 year-olds, the researchers found that simply not paying enough attention or taking enough notice of the surroundings is a big reason.

Here's what one teen reported: "I guess I wasn't really thinking what I was doing and, um, as I was driving I sneezed. And um, like, my eyes closed and everything, and then at the same moment my cellphone went off, and I forgot to put it on vibrate like I usually do, which surprised me. I went down to look at it, and when I looked up I was off the road and went to swerve and hit a mailbox."

This crash description is part of a study conducted in Connecticut. Researchers interviewed 16 year-olds who had been in nonfatal crashes and examined police reports of the crashes, finding that most of them involved multiple vehicles. The beginners were at fault in 68 percent of the crashes — 95 percent of those involving a single vehicle.

Thirty-nine percent of the beginning drivers' crashes involved running off the road. Another 31 percent involved hitting the backs of other vehicles. Major reasons for the at-fault collisions included speeding, skidding and/or losing control, having problems on slippery roads, and especially failing to see another vehicle or a traffic signal.

Why didn't the beginners see the other vehicles or signals? Mostly because they didn't look thoroughly. Some were daydreaming. Others became distracted by things inside and outside their vehicles including radios and CD players, friends by the side of the road, etc. Some teens reported opening a window to throw out trash or swiping at a bug while driving.

Male drivers were much more likely than females to have been speeding or to have lost control of their vehicles. The males also were more likely to run off the road, while the females got into more rear-end collisions.

"Teenagers will be teenagers, and this study points to some of their behavior that leads to crashes," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research and an author of the study. "Now that we know the mistakes, we can better address how to reduce them. Driver education hasn't been shown to help, but maybe some of the new electronic technologies in vehicles can monitor behavior like speeding and help beginners learn some important driving lessons sooner than they otherwise would."

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