Teen Drivers and Passengers: Get the Facts
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens.1 Teen motor vehicle crashes are preventable, and proven strategies can improve the safety of young drivers on the road.
About 2,800 teens in the United States ages 13–19 were killed1,2 and about 227,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2020.1 That means that every day, about eight teens died due to motor vehicle crashes, and hundreds more were injured. Motor vehicle crash deaths among teens 13–19 years of age resulted in about $40.7 billion* in medical costs and cost estimates for lives lost in 2020.1
The risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among teens ages 16–19 than among any other age group. Teen drivers in this age group have a fatal crash rate almost three times as high as drivers ages 20 and older per mile driven.2
Teens who are at especially high risk for motor vehicle crashes include:
- The motor vehicle crash death rate for male drivers ages 16–19 years was three times as high as the death rate for female drivers in the same age group in 2020.2
- Teens Driving with Teen or Young Adult Passengers
- The presence of teen or young adult passengers increases the crash risk of unsupervised teen drivers. This risk increases with each additional teen or young adult passenger.3,4
- Newly Licensed Teens
- Crash risk is particularly high during the first months of licensure.5–7 For example, data indicate that the crash rate per mile driven is about 1.5 times as high for 16-year-old drivers as it is for 18–19-year-old drivers.2
- Teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate or not be able to recognize dangerous situations.8,9 Teens are also more likely than adults to make critical errors that can lead to serious crashes.10,11
Nighttime and Weekend Driving:
- Nighttime driving is riskier than daytime driving for drivers of all ages but is particularly dangerous for teen drivers.
- The fatal crash rate at night among teen drivers (ages 16–19 years) is about 3 times as high as that of adult drivers (ages 30–59 years) per mile driven.2
- 44% of motor vehicle crash deaths among teens ages 13–19 occurred between 9 pm and 6 am, and 50% occurred on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday in 2020.2
Not Using Seat Belts:
- Teens and young adults often do not consistently wear a seat belt.
- Among teen drivers and passengers 16–19 years of age who were killed in car crashes in 2020, 56%† were not wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash.2
- 43.1% of U.S. high school students did not always wear a seat belt when riding in a car driven by someone else in 2019.12
- Data from annual studies where researchers observe people’s seat belt use in cars indicate that seat belt use in the front seat among teens and young adults (16–24 years of age) is consistently lower than seat belt use among adults (25 years of age and older).13
- Distraction negatively affects driving performance for all drivers but can be especially dangerous for young, inexperienced drivers.
- In 2019, among U.S. high school students who drove, 39% texted or e-mailed while driving at least once during the prior 30 days.12
- Teens are more likely than older drivers to speed and to allow shorter distances from the front of one vehicle to the front of the next.14–16 These risky driving behaviors appear to be worse when a male teenage passenger is present.16
- 35% of male drivers and 18% of female drivers (ages 15–20 years) who were involved in fatal crashes were speeding at the time of the crash in 2020.17
- Drinking any amount of alcohol before driving increases crash risk among teen drivers.2,18 Teen drivers have a much higher risk of being involved in a crash than older drivers at the same blood alcohol concentration (BAC), even at BAC levels below the legal limit for adults.18
- Results from the 2019 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed the following:12
- Among U.S. high school students who drove, 5.4% drove when they had been drinking alcohol at least once during the 30 days before the survey.
- Driving after drinking alcohol was higher among students who were older, male, Hispanic, or had lower grades.
- 16.7% of U.S. high school students rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol at least once during the 30 days before the survey.
- Riding with a drinking driver was higher among Hispanic students or students with lower grades.
- Students who engaged in any of the other transportation risk behaviors measured by the survey were approximately 3–13 times as likely to have also engaged in driving after drinking alcohol at least once during the 30 days before the survey.
- Even though it’s illegal to drink alcohol or drive after drinking any alcohol for people who are under 21 years old, 2020 data revealed that:17
- 29% of drivers ages 15–20 who were killed in motor vehicle crashes had been drinking.
- 17% of drivers ages 15–20 who were involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes had a BAC of 0.08% or higher—a level that is illegal for adults in all U.S. states (Note: Utah has a BAC limit of 0.05%).
- 62%§ of drivers ages 15–20 who were killed in motor vehicle crashes after drinking and driving were not wearing a seat belt.
- 24% of male drivers ages 15–20 years and 17% of female drivers ages 15–20 years who were involved in fatal crashes had been drinking prior to the crash.
- Driving while impaired by any substance is dangerous and illegal. This includes driving while impaired by alcohol, marijuana, other illicit drugs, prescription medications, and/or over-the-counter medications.19,20
- Many types of drugs/substances have the potential to impair a teen’s ability to drive safely.19
- After alcohol, marijuana is the most common drug associated with impaired driving.19,21
- Marijuana has negative effects on judgment, motor coordination, decision-making, and reaction time—all of which are important skills for safe driving.19,22–25
- Marijuana use before driving has been associated with an increased risk for motor vehicle crashes.23,24,26
- Among U.S. high school students who drove, about 13% drove when they had been using marijuana during the 30 days before the survey according to results from the 2017 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey.27,28
- Declines in ability to drive safely and risk for motor vehicle crashes may be greater when driving after using both marijuana and alcohol as compared with driving after using marijuana by itself or alcohol by itself.29–34
Seat Belts Save Lives
At least half of teen drivers and passengers ages 16–19 years who were killed in passenger vehicle crashes in 2020 were not wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash.2 Research indicates that seat belts reduce serious crash-related injuries and deaths by about half.35
Primary Enforcement of Seat Belt Laws
States vary in their enforcement of seat belt laws. A primary enforcement seat belt law allows police officers to ticket drivers or passengers for not wearing a seat belt, even if this is the only violation that has occurred. A secondary enforcement seat belt law allows police officers to ticket drivers or passengers for not wearing a seat belt only if they have pulled over the driver for another reason. Some states have secondary enforcement seat belt laws for adults but have primary enforcement seat belt laws for young drivers.
Seat belt use among all age groups is consistently higher in states with primary enforcement seat belt laws than in states with secondary enforcement seat belt laws.36–38 Visit the seat belt and child seat laws by state webpage on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s website for up-to-date information on seat belt laws by state, including the type of enforcement, who is covered, and which seating positions are covered.39 CDC also has state-specific fact sheets that provide a snapshot of motor vehicle occupant deaths and seat belt use, as well as an overview of proven strategies for increasing the use of seat belts, car seats, and booster seats. You can also use CDC’s Motor Vehicle Prioritizing Interventions and Cost Calculator for States (MV PICCS) to learn about how many lives could be saved, injuries prevented, and costs averted if your state were to implement a primary enforcement seat belt law.40
Not Drinking and Driving Prevents Crashes
Maintaining and enforcing minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) laws and zero tolerance laws for drivers under age 21 is recommended to help prevent drinking and driving among young drivers.41–43
Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) Systems Reduce Crash Injuries and Deaths
Driving is a complex skill and must be practiced to do it well. Teenagers have a higher risk for crashes because they lack driving experience and because they often engage in risk-taking behaviors. The need for skill-building and driving supervision for new drivers is the basis for graduated driver licensing (GDL) systems.
GDL systems enable new drivers to progressively gain driving experience and driving skills under lower risk conditions. The three stages of GDL include the following:
- Stage 1: Learner’s permit
- Stage 2: Intermediate/provisional license
- Stage 3: Full licensure
GDL systems exist in all U.S. states and the District of Columbia (D.C.), but the strength of GDL laws varies by state. GDL systems provide longer practice periods, limit driving under high-risk conditions for newly licensed drivers, and require greater participation from parents as their teens learn to drive. Research has consistently demonstrated that GDL systems are effective for reducing teen crashes and deaths.36,44,45 For example, a meta-analysis including 14 different studies about GDL systems found that GDL systems are associated with reductions of about 19% for injury crashes and about 21% for fatal crashes for 16-year-olds.44
Best practice GDL systems often include the following components:4,46–48
Stage 1: Learner’s Permit
- Minimum age of 16 to obtain a learner’s permit
- A requirement to have a learner’s permit for at least 12 months
- At least 70 supervised practice hours
Stage 2: Intermediate/Provisional License
- No teen or young adult passengers
- Restrictions on nighttime driving (from 9 or 10 pm until 5 am, or sometimes longer)
Stage 3: Full Licensure
- Minimum age of 18 to obtain a full license
Some states also don’t allow any type of cell phone use (including hands-free cell phone use) by teen drivers. Some of these requirements are built into GDL systems while others are based on age. As of November 2022, 36 states and D.C. have young driver cell phone use bans in effect.
Current GDL research has explored how many teens delay getting a license, characteristics of teens who are more likely to wait, and whether teens who delay getting a license might be missing out on important benefits of GDL because they are aging out of the GDL systems in their states.45,48–53
CDC’s GDL Planning Guide can assist states in assessing, developing, and implementing actionable plans to strengthen GDL practices. CDC’s State-Specific Fact Sheets on Costs of Motor Vehicle Crash Deaths contain recommendations of proven strategies for each state, including ones that could strengthen each state’s GDL system.
Make sure you and your young driver are aware of the leading causes of teen crashes and injuries:
- Driver inexperience
- Driving with teen or young adult passengers
- Nighttime driving
- Not using seat belts
- Distracted driving
- Drowsy driving
- Reckless driving
- Impaired driving
There are proven methods to help teens become safer drivers. Learn what research has demonstrated that parents can do to keep teen drivers safe from these risks.
Parents can help their teens be safer by knowing and following their state’s GDL laws. Check out GDL laws by state on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s website to learn more about your state’s GDL laws. Also, parents can set additional restrictions if the GDL laws in their state do not align with best practice.
Monitoring, Supervision, and Involvement by Parents Can Help Keep Teens Safer on the Road
Parents can play an important role in keeping teens safe on the road. Some studies indicate that parental monitoring and involvement can help reduce risky driving behaviors and increase safe driving behaviors among teen drivers.36,43,54,55
Research indicates that there are some potential technology solutions that can help parents monitor their teen driver.36,56–59 For example, several different studies have evaluated the effectiveness of in-vehicle electronic monitoring devices.36,56–59 These devices were beneficial for reducing unsafe driving behaviors among teens, particularly if they provided feedback about driving performance to both teens and parents and if they encouraged communication between teens and parents. Smartphone-based apps to monitor teen driver behavior may have the potential to be similarly beneficial and more affordable, but more research is needed.36,59,60
Parents can take other important actions beyond monitoring their teen’s driving. For example, they can provide supervised driving practice for their teen under varied conditions. They can also set clear rules and expectations like always wearing a seat belt and not driving with any other teen or young adult passengers. Parents and teens can discuss and agree on safe driving practices by signing a Parent-Teen Driving Agreement.
Choosing a Vehicle with Safety Features is Important
Teens are typically more likely to drive older cars than adults.61,62 Older cars may lack critical safety features that could help prevent a crash or keep teens safe if a crash occurs. Parents and teens should consider a car’s safety features first and foremost when choosing a first car for a teen driver.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety publishes a list of affordable vehicles that meet important safety criteria for teens. They also recently released a research paper explaining the benefits of newer vehicle technologies, like crash avoidance features and teen driver-specific technologies. These technologies have the potential to dramatically reduce teen crashes, injuries, and deaths.
- CDC Feature: Keep Teen Drivers Safe
- CDC’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey MMWR Surveillance Supplement, article 9: Transportation Risk Behaviors Among High School Students — Youth Risk Behavior Survey, United States, 2019
- CDC’s Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) System Planning Guide
- CDC’s State-Specific Fact Sheets on Costs of Motor Vehicle Crash Deaths
- CDC Podcasts about Teen Driver Safety:
- CDC’s Motor Vehicle Prioritizing Interventions and Cost Calculator for States (MV PICCS)
- CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH): Motor Vehicle Safety for Young Drivers at Work
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS):
* In 2020 U.S. dollars
† Seat belt use/nonuse was known for 1,658 of the 1,874 teens ages 16–19 years who were killed as passenger vehicle occupants (as drivers or as passengers) in 2020. Among the 1,658 teens who were killed as passenger vehicle occupants and for which seat belt use/nonuse was known, 936 (56%) were not wearing a seat belt.
§ These percentages are based on teen drivers ages 16–19 years who were killed as passenger vehicle occupants and for which seat belt use/nonuse was known.
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