December 2011

Teens in the Driver's Seat

More than 10 million teenagers in the United States have a driver's license. Receiving one is a rite of passage eagerly anticipated by many teens-and one that creates understandable anxiety for many parents. As we recognize National Impaired Driving Prevention Month in December, there is cause for concern:

Mom talking with teen daughter

  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, accounting for more than one in three deaths of high school students.1,2 In 2008, more than 350,000 teens were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor vehicle crashes.3
  • For every mile driven, teen drivers ages 16-19 are four times more likely than older drivers to be involved in an accident.4
  • Dangerous or fatal teen driving is more likely to occur after dark; when teens are driving with friends; when teens are not wearing seat belts; when they are drowsy; and particularly after drinking alcohol, using drugs, or when distracted (including texting or talking on the phone, eating or putting on makeup).5

How to Improve Teen Driving

Decrease distracted driving. Teens are the most likely age group to be distracted while driving.6 More than half of 16- and 17-year-old cell phone owners talk while driving; a third admit to texting and driving.7 Distracted driving can be reduced by implementing and enforcing cell phone policies. Thirty-five (35) states and the District of Columbia have banned text messaging by all drivers; nine states and DC have prohibited all hand-held cell phone use while driving.8 On December 13, 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a recommendation that all states prohibit the use of cell phones, including hands-free devices,  while driving, with the exception of emergency situations. Teens and their families can take a pledge to commit to Distraction Free Driving, and learn more about their state’s cell-phone and driving policies. Also, they can learn about promising practices, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) successful "Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other" pilot enforcement program.

Increase seatbelt use. Seatbelt use is increasing among teens. The percentage of youth ages 16 to 24 using seat belts increased from 53 percent in 1994, to 80 percent in 2008.9 Still, this age group buckles up less frequently than any other age group.10 States can encourage seat belt use among teens with primary enforcement seat belt laws, which allow drivers to be stopped and ticketed if they or their passengers are not wearing seat belts.11

Strengthen graduated driver licensing policies. Graduated driver license policies incorporate three stages: states first grant new drivers learners’ permits (a supervised practice stage involving a driver’s education course), followed by a provisional license, and then full licensure.12 Recent research shows that graduated driver licensing programs, now law in all 50 states, reduce fatal crash rates among 16- and 17-year-olds by 8 to 14 percent. Reductions were greatest in states that had additional policies to promote driving safety in place, such as mandatory seat-belt laws and/or zero-tolerance penalties for underage drinking or possession of alcohol.13 Thus, the National Institutes of Health recommends that “strong” state graduated driver license policies include at least five of seven elements: A minimum age of 16 for a learner’s permit; a mandatory period of at least six months with a learner’s permit; 50 to 100 hours of supervised driving; a minimum age of 17 for a provisional license; restrictions on driving at night; a limit on the number of teenage passengers; and a minimum age of 18 for a full license.

Mom talking with teen daughter

If every state had a strong graduated driver licensing policy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as many as 175 lives could be saved, and 350,000 injuries could be prevented each year.14 If every state also prohibited cell phone use, a recent report estimates that approximately 2,000 lives per year could be saved.15 Check your state’s licensing system for young drivers through the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Also, the Governors’ Highway Safety Association’s guidebook has concrete strategies and innovative programs state highway safety officers can institute in their own states.

Reducing drunk and drugged driving. Approximately one in 10 high school students has driven a vehicle after drinking alcohol; one in three has ridden in a car with a driver who had been drinking.16 To address drunk driving by teens, NHTSA recommends reducing adolescents’ access to alcohol through rigorous enforcement of underage drinking laws. To see the policies in place to reduce underage drinking in your state, click here. NHTSA also recommends educating parents, communities, alcohol vendors, and teens themselves about the dangers of teen drinking and action steps that each group can take to reduce the practice.

In recent years, drugged driving among teens (and adults) has emerged as a serious concern. In 2008, one in 10 high school seniors had driven after using marijuana in the two weeks prior to being surveyed.17 Of all motor vehicle fatalities with known drug test results, one in three drivers tested positive for drugs.18 A goal of the National Drug Control Strategy is to reduce drugged driving in the United States by 10 percent by 2015, and to make it a national priority on par with drunk driving prevention, by taking five primary actions, including the adoption of specific drug impairment laws and increasing community and law enforcement attention and training on the issue.


Did you know?

Drowsiness or fatigue is a condition that disproportionately affects young drivers. Drivers ages 25 or younger cause more than one-half (55 percent) of falling-asleep crashes. Read more about sleep, drowsiness and young drivers here.


What Parents Can Do

Learn about new driver guidelines in your state and make sure that you and your teen adhere to the laws in place. Also, establish and share your rules for using the car with your teenager.19

Family in car talking

  • Alcohol and drugs: Absolutely no alcohol or drug use. Set the example by never driving impaired yourself.
  • Seat belts: Always buckle up! Parents should always buckle up themselves to set a good example.
  • Cell phone/texting: No talking or texting while driving, and establish cell-phone-specific rules that include putting your phone away when driving and not texting friends when you know they are driving.20
  • Beware of the dark: Have the car home by 10 p.m.
  • Limit Passengers: Experts recommend no more than one at all times.
  • Set consequences for breaking house rules.

1 Child Trends DataBank. (2010). Distracted Driving among Teens. Available here.

2 Miniño, A. M., Xu, J., & Kochanek, K. D. (2010). Deaths: Preliminary data for 2008. National Vital Statistics Reports 59(2). Center for Health Statistics. Available here.

3 National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (2010). Policy Impact: Teen Driver Safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available here.

4 Child Trends DataBank. (2010). Distracted Driving among Teens. Available here.

5 Kaneshiro, N.K. (2011) Safe Driving for Teens. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. Available here.

6 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2010). Traffic Safety Facts Research Note: Distracted Driving 2009. Available here.

7 Madden, M. and Lenhart, A. (2009). Teens and Distracted Driving: Texting, talking and other uses of the cell phone behind the wheel. The Pew Charitable Trusts. Available here.

8 See’s interactive map, available here.

9 Child Trends DataBank. (2010). Seat Belt Use. Available here.

10 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2010). Teens and Distracted Driving Fact Sheet. Available here.

11 Shults, R.A., Begg, D., Mayhew, D.R., Simpson, H.M. (2011). Injury Prevention & Control: Motor Vehicle Safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available here.

12 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Teen Drivers: Fact Sheet. Available here.

13 National Institutes of Health. (2011). Graduated drivers licensing programs reduce fatal teen crashes. Available here.

14 National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (2010). Policy Impact: Teen Driver Safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available here.

15 National Safety Council and the Allstate Foundation. (2011). The Allstate Foundation License to Save Report. Available here.

16 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey - United States, 2009. Surveillance Summaries: MMWR 2010; 59 (No. SS-5). Available here.

17 White House Office on National Drug Control Policy. (2011). Teen Drugged Driving: Parent, Coalition and Community Group Activity Guide. Available here.

18 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2010). Traffic Safety Facts: Drug Involvement of Fatally Injured Drivers. Available here.

19 See NHTSA’s web page, Teen Drivers – Parents and Teens.

20 See more tips from Stop the Texts, Stop the Wrecks, a NHTSA initiative.

Last updated: March 10, 2016