Acceptance of and Engagement in Risky Driving Behaviors by Teenagers

By Sarkar, Sheila; Andreas, Marie | Adolescence, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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Acceptance of and Engagement in Risky Driving Behaviors by Teenagers

Sarkar, Sheila, Andreas, Marie, Adolescence


In the United States, teenagers drive less than other age groups except for the very oldest group, yet their number of accidents and fatalities is disproportionately high. The accident rate per mile for 16- to 19-year-olds is four times higher than among older drivers. The newest drivers are at the highest risk; the crash rate per mile is three times higher for 16-year-olds than for 18- to 19-year olds. The California Highway Patrol (2000) reported that in California 37,532 teenage drivers (between the ages of 16-19) were involved in accidents in the year 2000. Out of those, 22,862 were the fault of the teenage driver. Over 20% of all traffic deaths in the United States occurred when a teenager was driving; for teenage passenger fatalities 63% occurred when they were riding with another teenager (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2001).

Adolescent drivers tend to engage in numerous risky behaviors including speeding which has been found to significantly correlate with a greater risk for accidents (Elander, West, & French, 1993). They are more likely to exhibit and report greater risk-taking such as following too closely, unsafe accelerations, and rapid lane changes (Jonah, 1986; 1990; Preusser, Ferguson, & Williams, 1988).

Teenagers' perceptions of their own skills and those of the drivers around them contribute to their risky behavior. Drivers who believe they are highly skilled are less likely to properly evaluate a risky situation. Young drivers in particular are much more likely to overestimate their skills (Finn & Bragg, 1986; Gregersen & Bjurulf, 1996).

It was also found that drivers of all ages who participate in one type of reckless driving were more likely to engage in other types (Evans & Wasielewski, 1982). Faster driving and tendency to commit traffic violations were correlated with increased crash risk (Elander, West, & French, 1993).

Lack of driving experience has been viewed as a major contributing factor in adolescent driving problems. However, Gregersen and Bjurulf (1996) examined a model in which other factors were shown to influence driver behavior, such as attitudes of others. Teenagers who socialize with others who display risky behaviors are more likely to engage in that type of behavior (Gerra et al., 1999; Jessor, Turbin, & Costa, 1997; West & Hall, 1997).

Gender Issues

Gender differences also play an important role in driving practices. Young males are more likely to overestimate their driving ability (Gregersen & Bjurulf, 1996), and this overconfidence has been shown to be correlated with increased risk-taking behavior involvement in accidents and violations (Elander, West, & French, 1993).

In the California Highway Patrol (2000) report, 317 males between the ages of 16-19 died in car crashes in California as compared to 155 females; 64% of the males were at fault, and 62% of the females. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (2001) reported that in the year 2000 in the United States, two out of every three teenagers killed in car accidents were male.

The Current Study

This study examined two groups of drivers: one that is just learning the rules of the road, and the other a group of newly licensed drivers who have already been caught breaking these rules--most within the first 12 months of obtaining a license. It is hoped that understanding how these teenagers think about driving, their assessment of risks, and to whom they are being exposed as passengers can contribute to a reduction in traffic accidents and violations.



The first group consisted of 1,430 student-drivers enrolled in driver training programs throughout Southern California. These sources are designed to enable them to obtain the needed education and experience and get their driver's licenses. In California, teenagers under the age of 18 cannot get a license unless they have attended a driver training course.

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Acceptance of and Engagement in Risky Driving Behaviors by Teenagers


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