Young drivers: the hard facts

There is a wealth of research and casualty data showing that young drivers - particularly young male drivers - are at a much higher risk of crashing than older drivers.  They are therefore more at risk of losing their lives or being seriously injured on the road, often killing or injuring their young passengers or other road users too. Road crashes are the biggest single killer of young people in the UK and worldwide [1]. Young drivers are involved in in in four fatal and serious crashes, despite only making up one in eight driver licence holders [2].
Other data from the UK shows that:
  • An 18-year-old driver is more than three times as likely to be involved in a crash as a 48 year-old [3]
  • One in five new drivers has a crash within six months of passing their test [4]
  • Young male drivers have much higher crash rates than young female drivers [5]. 
  • Young male drivers aged 17-20 are seven times more at risk than all male drivers - but between the hours of 2am and 5am their risk is 17 times higher [6].

Risk taking

Young drivers are more likely to take a number of the dealiest risks on our roads, including speeding, overtaking blind, driving on drugs, and not belting up [7]. Young drivers, and especially young men, are more likely to seek thrills from driving fast and cornering at high speed than older drivers [8]. 
Drivers under 25 have the highest incidence of failing a breath test after a crash and in roadside checks. In a 2012 month-long enforcement campaign, 5.27% of under-25s stopped by police failed or refused a breath test compared to 3.39% of drivers age 25+ [9]. Any amount of alcohol can affect a person’s ability to drive safely as alcohol impairs reaction times and affects the ability to judge speed and distances accurately. Alcohol or drugs combined with a lack of experience on roads is a particularly dangerous combination.
Young drivers and passengers are less likely to always belt up, and may feel under peer pressure to not belt up when in a car with friends. US research showed seatbelt use decreases among young drivers when increasing numbers of passengers are present and is lowest with passengers aged 20-29. Of young people killed on roads, only one-third of young drivers and one-fifth of young passengers were belted up [10].

Carrying passengers

Research shows that peer pressure can encourage bad driving and result in drivers ‘showing off’ to their passengers, as well as causing distraction. US research has shown that the already high crash rate for 16-19-year-olds driving alone is greatly increased when passengers are present. The more passengers, the more risk and the risk is higher when the drivers are aged 16 and 17 rather than 18 and 19. With two or more passengers, the fatal crash risk for 16-19 year-old drivers is more than five times what it is when driving alone [11].

Driving at night

Young drivers have a higher proportion of crashes (many of which are single-vehicle) in the evenings and early mornings [12] when they are most likely to be driving for recreational purposes, and more likely to be drunk or drugged. Driving at night also requires extreme care. Young drivers may be under the impression that because roads are quieter at night it is safer for them to speed or pay less attention to the road. In fact, you can’t see as far. Also, the other road users who are about, such as revelling pedestrians, are more likely to be drunk and also taking less care than during the day. 

Why are young drivers more at risk?

Research shows that it's a combination of youth and inexperience that puts younger drivers st such high risk. Their inexperience means they have a poorer ability to spot hazards and their youth means they are particularly likely to take risks.

Younger drivers are likely to:

Be over-confident

Young people quickly pick up the physical skills of driving and, as a result, feel they have mastered it and are subsequently very confident about their driving ability. This means young drivers may drive unsafely, but think that they are actually in control. Many young people admit they often feel they are immortal and that they think crashes only happen to other people.

Assess risks poorly

Although some hazards on the road are easy to identify, there are some situations where hazards are not immediately obvious. It often takes experience to notice these hidden hazards and due to inexperience, young people may be poor at noticing and reacting in time to these hazards. US research has shown young drivers show poorer attention, visual awareness, speed relative to conditions, hazard recognition and avoidance [13]. 
Any new task takes a certain amount of concentration and driving in takes continuous concentration. Driving is a new experience for young people and they tend to use most of their mental energy on the immediate tasks such as gear changing, rather than general observation of the potential hazards. If there is a sudden need to avoid a situation, young people may be less able to deal with it due to their mental energy being focused on other tasks.

Take risks

While young people understand the consequences of risk taking, they may not always understand which risks cause the worst consequences. For example, research has shown that young drivers are less likely than older drivers to cite speeding as a major cause of crashes, and when asked to rank a number of driving situations in order of risk, young drivers ranked speeding significantly lower in risk than older drivers [14]. It has also been suggested that one of the reasons young drivers attach less importance to the risk of speeding is they are overconfident in their control and recovery skills. [15]

What can be done to improve the safety of young people?

Graduated Driver Licensing

Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) allows new drivers to build up their driving skills and experience gradually. It means limiting the exposure of new drivers to the dangerous situations highlighted above, including driving at night and carrying passengers. By law, novice drivers going through GDL are subjected to certain restrictions and conditions, including restrictions on numbers of passengers they can carry, driving at night, and alcohol consumption. Read more on GDL.

Provide better alternatives to driving

The frontal lobe of the brain - which helps us control instincts and emotions - is not fully developed until a person’s mid 20s, meaning the younger you are when you get a driving licence the greater the risk. A study by the Transport Research Laboratory predicted that drivers who started to drive when they were 18 years old would have 9% fewer crashes in their first year of driving than those who started to drive when they were 17 years old. Drivers who began driving when they were aged 19 years would have 8% fewer crashes in the first year than those who began when they were 18 years old. [16] 
Dscouraging people from learning to drive while young can therefore have a significant impact on safety. Many young people learn to drive while young because they feel they have little other option for getting around. If we improve public transport (both access to it and affordability), and walking and cycling routes to workplaces and colleges, we can 

Monitoring and influencing young drivers through technology

It is possible to fit ‘black box’ technology to vehicles so their speed and time of use can be monitored by parents or insurance companies. Some insurers now offer this technology as an option to young drivers, with discounts given on insurance for those who are shown to drive safely. It is also possible to fit alco-locks (which prevent a vehicle being driven unless a driver has passed a breath test) and seat belt alert systems (which prevent a vehicle being driven unless everyone is belted up). 


The introduction of a GDL system should be accompanied by a racking-up of enforcement of young drivers. This should include continued increased use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition technology to easily identify unlicensed/uninsured drivers and drivers in stolen cars (who are often young). Systems that mean a young driver loses their licence if they acquire a lower number of penalty points than an older driver are also helpful, if combined with increased enforcement to ensure young drivers who lose their licence don’t just drive unlicensed without being caught. 

Voluntary ‘codes’

In the US, parent/young driver agreements are popular. The new driver is allowed to drive the family car or their own car, unsupervised, if they agree to certain conditions for the first year or two of driving. The conditions include restrictions on carrying passengers and driving at night. Although not legally binding, parents could enforce the rules by stating, for example, that their teenager is not allowed to drive for a week or will have their allowance stopped if they break any of the rules. To read a Safe Driving Agreement produced by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), click here.

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