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Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for young people 15 to 20 years of age, causing roughly one-third of all fatalities in this age group. Last year, over 6,000 young people ages 15-20 died in motor vehicle crashes. Even though this age group makes up only 7% of the driving population, they are involved in 14% of all traffic fatalities. Teens were also involved in more than two million non-fatal traffic crashes last year. Based on population projections, these numbers will go up unless we intervene. (See chart below.)

On the basis of miles driven, teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as are all drivers. Why do young drivers have such poor driving performance? Three factors work together to make the teen years so deadly for young drivers:

  • Inexperience
  • Risk-taking behavior and immaturity
  • Greater risk exposure

Inexperience: All young drivers start out with very little knowledge or understanding of the complexities of driving a motor vehicle. Like any other skill, learning to drive well takes a lot of time. Technical ability, good judgment and experience all are needed to properly make the many continuous decisions, small and large, that add up to safe driving.

Risk-taking behavior and immaturity: Adolescent impulsiveness is a natural behavior, but it results in poor driving judgment and participation in high-risk behaviors such as speeding, inattention, drinking and driving, and not using a seat belt. Peer pressure also often encourages risk taking.

Greater risk exposure: Teens often drive at night with other teens in the vehicle, factors that increase crash risk.

Teen drivers are different from other drivers, and their crash experience is different. Compared to other drivers, a higher proportion of teenagers are responsible for their fatal crashes because of their own driving errors:

A larger percentage of fatal crashes involving teenage drivers are single-vehicle crashes compared to those involving other drivers. In this type of fatal crash, the vehicle usually leaves the road and overturns or hits a roadside object, such as a tree or a pole.

In general, a smaller percentage of teens wear their seat belts compared to other drivers.

A larger proportion of teen fatal crashes involve speeding, or going too fast for road conditions, compared to other drivers.

More teen fatal crashes occur when passengers ­ usually other teenagers ­ are in the car than do crashes involving other drivers. Two out of three teens who die as passengers are in vehicles driven by other teenagers.

*Source: US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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