Does Driver's Ed. Need a Tune Up? Teens' Crash Risk Rises Right After Licensing
Getting a first driver's license is seen as a major milestone in teenagers' independence, but a new study suggests students' practice driving may not be preparing them for the risks of that freedom.
The new study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, for the first time tracked individual teenagers and their parents over the year before and after the teenagers moved from learner's permits to full driver's licenses. They found new drivers are eight times more likely to crash or have a close call in the first three months after getting a license than during the last three months on a learner's permit.
The researchers installed temporary devices in the cars of 90 teenagers with learning permits and 131 experienced adult drivers in Virginia. The trackers recorded both motion data on "kinematic risky driving"— sudden acceleration or braking, hard turns, or swerves ("KRD" in the chart below)—and videos of each driver and his environment.
As the following chart shows, student-drivers steadily improved in the last three months before getting their driver's licenses; by the end, teenage girls and boys alike were as safe as the adults in their rates of crashing or risky driving. After they had a license to drive independently, however, teenagers' rates of crashes and near misses shot up;mdash;and while girls' crash rates then fell back, boys continued to drive unsafely:
Experience and Judgment
Those findings align with prior studies that show new drivers remain at a higher risk for a full year or two after earning a license.
"Teens pretty quickly learn to manage the vehicle, in about four to six hours of practice driving," said Bruce Simons-Morton, a co-author of the study and a senior investigator with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's health behavior branch. "Unfortunately, I think that gives supervising [adults] the sense of false security that if [the student driver] can manage the vehicle, they can manage themselves in traffic. But that takes judgment, and many studies show that judgment comes much, much slower."
The new study's video data also showed teenagers had fewer accidents during dark or rainy driving conditions than clear days. Counterintuitively, the bad conditions may help new drivers drive more carefully, Simons-Morton said. Prior studies have found teenagers are significantly more likely than adults to crash because they get distracted by texting, eating, and talking to passengers. Even when adults allow themselves to be distracted, they refocus more quickly and respond faster to problems ahead on the road, the videos show.
These skills come from experience anticipating and avoiding road dangers, Simons-Morton said, but that's something few driver's education instructors or parents focus on during practice driving. Driver's education programs typically spend 30 or more hours of classroom instruction preparing students for the written licensure test, but often only six or seven hours of practice driving. In recent years every state has moved to graduated licenses, which require students to log on average 50 hours of driving with a parent or other adult before earning a license to drive independently.
But prior studies suggest adults, be they parents or driving instructors, tend to take over or prevent a teenager from getting into dangerous situations while learning to drive.
"During the learner's permit period, parents are present, so there are some skills that teenagers cannot learn until they are on their own," says Pnina Gershon, the study's lead author and also of NICHD, in a statement. "We need a better understanding of how to help teenagers learn safe driving skills when parents or other adults are not present."
In a separate, forthcoming study, the researchers have observed the most effective driving instructors in Australia, and have started to cull practices for "higher order driving instruction." Among them:
- Anticipatory learning, such as pointing out typical situations—for example, an intersection where hedges or parked cars partially obscure the driver's vision—and asking the student to notice the dangers that may cause.
- Setting driving rules not just around where and when the teenager can drive, but also safety limits such as on the number of other teenage passengers in the car or using technology while driving.
Photo Source: Getty