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Status Report, Vol. 46, No. 10 | November 17, 2011 Subscribe

Teens' crash risk rises when they drive models built for performance

No matter what they drive, teenagers are more likely than drivers their parents' age to crash. The extra risk is amplified for teens on motorcycles and in sports cars, a new analysis shows.

Crash rates among the generations vary least when driving very large SUVs and other big vehicles, the report from the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) concludes. Those vehicles are among the least likely to crash no matter who is behind the wheel. As it happens, large vehicles also provide better protection when a crash does occur, so they are good choices for teen drivers in all ways.

"When you're riding a motorcycle or driving a sports car, there's a greater temptation to go fast and show off," says Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president of HLDI, an Institute affiliate. "Teenagers are probably more susceptible to that than experienced drivers."

HLDI researchers looked at collision insurance claims for 2006-10 passenger vehicle and motorcycle models during calendar years 2005-10. They compared the frequency with which claims were filed for drivers ages 16-19 with the frequency for drivers ages 35-60, referred to in the study as prime-age drivers. The person considered the driver is the one assigned to a given vehicle for insurance purposes. Information on who was actually driving at the time of a crash isn't available in HLDI's database, which is based on reports from insurers representing about 80 percent of the market for privately insured vehicles.

The ratio of teen claim frequency to prime-age claim frequency shows how much more risky a given vehicle is for teens than for prime-age drivers. The researchers found the highest claim frequency ratio for supersport motorcycles. When these bikes are ridden by teens, claims are filed at a rate of 27.4 per 100 insured vehicle years — more than 4 times the rate for 35-60 year-olds on the same type of motorcycle. An insured vehicle year is 1 vehicle insured for 1 year, 2 for 6 months, etc. Sport motorcycles have the second-highest ratio of 2.7. Among teens, their claim frequency is 14.5 versus 5.3 for prime-age drivers.

Collision claim frequency ratio of teen drivers to prime-age drivers by vehicle type and class, 2006-10 model years

Graph image

Note: "Other motorcycles" combines chopper, dual-purpose, scooter, sport touring, touring, and unclad sport classes


Teenagers make up just 1 percent of insured motorcycle riders, though they represent 3 percent of motorcycle collision claims. When they do ride, they are more likely than not to be on a supersport or sport motorcycle — the types with the highest crash rates (see Status Report special issue: motorcycles, Sept. 11, 2007). On average, teenagers on motorcycles have a claim frequency about 18 percent higher than teenagers driving automobiles.

Midsize sports cars have the third-highest ratio of teen to prime-age-driver claim rates and the highest among automobiles. Their teen claim frequency of 14.9 is 2.5 times the rate for prime-age drivers.

Also high on the list are minicars and small cars, with teen claim rates that are about double those for prime-age drivers. These vehicles have high crash rates generally, despite the commonly held belief that they are less likely to crash because they are more maneuverable.

"We don't know exactly why small cars have high crash rates," Hazelbaker says. "It may be that greater maneuverability, rather than allowing drivers to avoid crashes, actually encourages them to make more sudden moves. Also, cars with shorter wheelbases are less stable and therefore less forgiving when drivers make mistakes. Both of these things are big concerns for teenage drivers because of their inexperience," he explains.

Although big vehicles generally crash less often, large station wagons appear to be an exception. They have high claim rates for both teens and prime-age drivers but are more than twice as likely to crash when the driver is a teen. However, today's large station wagons aren't anything like minivans or large cars. In fact, the category is comprised entirely of the Dodge Magnum, which has a powerful engine and a sporty image.

In contrast, large and very large SUVs, both luxury and nonluxury models, don't crash much more with teen drivers than they do with prime-age drivers. The ratio of teen claim frequency to prime-age claim frequency for these SUVs ranges from 1.1 to 1.3. Very large minivans, a category that includes most minivan models, and large and very large luxury cars fall within this range, too.

One reason SUVs have low teen claim rates might be that they're more likely than other types of vehicles to have been equipped with electronic stability control (ESC) in the study period. ESC, required in all passenger vehicles as of the 2012 model year, made its way more quickly into SUVs than other vehicles. Earlier, HLDI found the technology reduces collision claims in SUVs by 8 percent and overall collision losses by 18 percent. ESC also reduces the likelihood of a deadly crash in all vehicles by 33 percent (see "Stability control reduces fatal crash risk by a third," June 19, 2010).

The HLDI analysis deals only with claim frequency. The likelihood of a serious or fatal injury if a crash were to occur is a separate matter, but on that front SUVs look good, too. Their bigger size and weight keep their occupants better protected. That size/weight advantage, combined with the advent of ESC, helps explain why today's SUVs have lower driver death rates than cars or pickups (see "Dying in a crash," June 9, 2011).

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