Teenage drivers with peer passengers at higher risk for fatal crashes, study finds

When a novice teen driver dies in a crash, odds increasingly are that there is another teenager in the car, new research shows.

For more than a decade, states have been imposing restrictions on teenage drivers that probably deserve credit for an overall decline in teenage traffic fatalities. Still, a study released Thursday shows that 15-to-17-year-old drivers are almost eight times as likely to get into a fatal accident when they are carrying two or more teen passengers.

The analysis of 10 years of national traffic data notes that the 30 percent increase in deaths when other teens are present came at “the same time text messaging exploded in American society.”

“We can’t scientifically state that there’s a direct link between these two things yet, but it seems reasonable to suspect a connection,” said Russell Henk, a researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) who wrote the study.

Drivers age 19 and younger are three times as likely to die in accidents, and traffic fatalities are the leading cause of death in that age group.

From 2002 to 2011, the number of novice teenage drivers in fatal accidents dropped by 60 percent, but the percentage of fatalities that occurred when other teens were in the vehicle increased each year.

The District and 47 states, including Maryland and Virginia, have adopted graduated licensing programs that put specific requirements on teenage drivers, including a restriction on the number of passengers they can carry.

The District allows no passengers for the first six months and no more than two after that. Maryland allows no passengers younger than 18 for the first five months. Virginia permits no passengers younger than 18 for the first year. All three jurisdictions limit driving overnight, as do all states except Vermont and Nevada.

All three Washington area jurisdictions ban cellphone use by novice teenage drivers, as do 35 other states, and outlaw texting by all drivers.

The graduated licensing schemes lift restrictions as drivers age and gain experience, an approach born out by the study’s comparison of 15-to-17-year-olds with drivers in the next older group, 18 to 24. Although deaths with teen passengers on board increased each year among the younger group, they declined over 10 years in the older group.

“Novice drivers (15 to 17 years old) are at a distinct disadvantage, not only because of their limited driving experience, but also because of their incomplete brain development,” says the TTI study. “Research has found that the prefrontal cortex of the brain — the region responsible for weighing the consequences of risky behavior — is the last part of the brain to develop.”

Those new drivers are more easily distracted and more likely to take risks when other teenagers are in the vehicle, the report said.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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