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Status Report, Vol. 47, No. 2 | March 6, 2012 Subscribe

Teen passenger death rate starts uptick at age 13

The teenage crash problem starts years before most teens become licensed drivers and is greatly affected by state licensing policies. These are the main findings of an Institute-sponsored study of crashes in which 13-15 year-olds died.

Most of the teens this age who died were passengers, and more often than not, another teenager was at the wheel, the study found. It is not until age 17 that teens die in crashes more often as drivers than they do as passengers.

The study was led by Allan Williams, the Institute's former chief scientist, and examined fatal crashes nationwide of 13-15-year-old passengers and drivers during 2005-09.

In all, 1,994 passengers and 299 drivers ages 13 to 15 died in motor vehicle crashes, an average of about 460 a year. An additional 89 surviving drivers ages 13 to 15 were involved each year, on average, in fatal crashes. Among the teen drivers involved in fatal crashes, most were driving without a license or permit.

"Starting around age 13, the teen passenger death rate per 100,000 population climbs steadily as young teens increasingly travel with friends who already have learner permits or licenses," Williams says. In the study, 37 percent of the passenger deaths of 13 year-olds happened when a teen was driving. This compares with 54 percent at age 14, and 66 percent at age 15.

Graduated licensing laws, which phase in young beginners to full driving privileges as they mature and develop their driving skills, have helped to save thousands of teens' lives. During the past 2 decades, fatal crashes of 13-15 year-olds as drivers and passengers have declined sharply, but teens still continue to die in crashes.

Between 1990 and 2009, the number of 13-15-year-old passenger deaths dropped 57 percent, from 595 in 1990 to 258 in 2009. The number of 13-15-year-old driver deaths fell 68 percent, from 121 to 39, and the number of drivers this age involved in fatal crashes declined 64 percent, from 296 to 108.

Most graduated licensing systems restrict how many, if any, teens can ride along. Laws also limit nighttime driving and require adult supervision for a specific length of time. These provisions have proven effective (see Status Report special issue: teenage drivers, May 7, 2009). Teen licensing laws work best when teens abide by them, police enforce them, and parents set limits on when and with whom their children can travel.

"Some parents may not think twice about allowing their son or daughter to tag along as a passenger when another teen is at the wheel, especially if they are just hitching a ride home from an after-school activity," Williams says. "Crash data tell us that these seemingly innocent outings can be risky. That is why parents must be vigilant about monitoring their kids even if their own children haven't reached driving age."

One reason teenagers continue to die in crashes is because some still don't use safety belts. In the study, only about a third of the passengers killed used belts, and belt use declined as teens grew older. At age 13, 40 percent of teen passengers who died buckled up, compared with 36 percent at age 14, and 30 percent at age 15.

Passenger vehicle occupant deaths, 2005-09

Age Passengers Drivers
13 389 21
14 624 64
15 981 214
16 1,481 1,404
17 1,658 2,195

License status of 13-15-year-old drivers in fatal crashes, 2005-09

Graph image

Crash involvement rates for 13-15-year-old drivers by type of licensing state

  License <16 Permit but not license <16 Permit at 16 and license >16
Driver age Rate per 100k Rate ratio* Rate per 100k Rate ratio* Rate per 100k Rate ratio*
13-15 4.13 0.15 1.22 0.07 0.34 0.03
*Crash rate for drivers in first column divided by crash rate of drivers ages 25-59

Driver characteristics

Nearly three-quarters of 13-15 year-olds who were driving at the time of their fatal crash were doing so without a license or permit (63 percent) or with permits but without required adult supervision (10 percent). Among 15-year-old drivers in fatal crashes, 53 percent had neither a learner permit nor a license, 25 percent were licensed, 10 percent had a permit and were driving with an adult passenger, and 13 percent had permits but were driving without adult supervision.

The fatal crashes of teen drivers who had learner permits but were driving without adult passengers and the fatal crashes of teen drivers without permits or licenses were more likely to involve speeding, single vehicles, or not using belts than the fatal crashes of licensed teen drivers.

Teenage drivers in crashes in which 13-15-year-old passengers were killed tended to be older teens, particularly 16 and 17 year-olds. Federal fatal crash data, however, don't indicate if these drivers were older siblings, friends, or other peers, or why the teens were on the road and where they were headed when they crashed.

Teens with learner permits and adult supervision had the best profile. These teens were least likely to be in single-vehicle crashes or to have been speeding, and the majority were using belts.

Licensing age

The age at which teens can obtain licenses has an impact on young teens. Most states license at 16, 16½, or somewhere in between, and a few license even younger. Only New Jersey has a licensing age as old as 17, a policy that is more in line with those of other countries. Research shows delaying licensure is helping to reduce fatal crashes per capita among 17 year-olds in New Jersey (see "New Jersey leads way with strong teen licensing laws," March 31, 2010).

Although the numbers were small, rates of young teen drivers involved in fatal crashes per 100,000 population (referenced against the crash rates of 25-59 year-olds) were highest in states that license prior to age 16 and lowest in states that don't allow permits until teens reach 16.

Researchers used crash data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which tracks fatal crashes on roads in the United States. Census data were used to compute crash involvement rates per capita.

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