There's No Safety In Numbers for Teen Drivers

Imagine you're driving down the highway. On your right is a car with an adult driver and a single passenger. On your left, a teen driver cruises along with four other teens as his passengers. Which car is more likely to make you nervous?

If you said the car full of teens, you're probably not alone. Experts have long known that peer passengers increase teen driver crash risk. Now, new research from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and State Farm sheds some light on why – namely, teens driving with peer passengers tend to be more distracted, exhibit risk-taking behaviors, have a limited perception of driving risks and more.

"These studies help us understand the factors that may predispose teens to drive with multiple friends and how those passengers may contribute to crashes by distracting the driver and promoting risky driving behaviors, such as speeding, tailgating or weaving," said study author Allison Curry, Ph.D., director of epidemiology at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention.

The first study surveyed 198 teen drivers and found that teens who are most likely to drive with multiple passengers shared the following characteristics: They considered themselves thrill-seekers, perceived their parents as not setting rules and possessed a weak perception of the risks associated with driving in general.

"The good news is that that these teens make up the minority," said Jessica Mirman, Ph.D., study author and a behavioral researcher. "Teens in this study generally reported strong perceptions of the risks of driving, low frequencies of driving with multiple passengers and strong beliefs that their parents monitored their behavior and set rules."

Passenger Distraction

The second study analyzed a nationally-representative sample of 677 teen drivers involved in serious crashes to compare the likelihood of driver distraction and risk-taking behaviors just prior to the crash when teens drive with peer passengers and when they drive alone.

"Both male and female teen drivers with peer passengers were more likely to be distracted just before a crash as compared to teens who crashed while driving alone," explained Curry. "Among the teens who said they were distracted by something inside the vehicle before they crashed, 71 percent of males and 47 percent of females said they were distracted directly by the actions of their passengers."

Additionally, males with passengers were almost six times more likely to perform an illegal maneuver and more than twice as likely to drive aggressively just before a crash, as compared to males driving alone. Females teen drivers rarely drove aggressively prior to a crash, regardless of whether they had passengers in the car.

Setting Passenger Limits

The study authors emphasized the important role parents play in supporting safe driving among teens and their passengers. They recommend parents set a house rule of no non-sibling teen passengers for the first 6 months of driving and only one non-sibling passenger for the second 6 months.

"It's critical that parents stay involved in their teens’ driving beyond the learner permit phase. This includes continuing to monitor their driving activities and to review ways teens can be safe drivers and passengers," said Chris Mullen, research director at State Farm. "Combined with Graduated Driver Licensing laws that limit passengers for the first year of driving, involved parents are an effective strategy to protect teens from a dangerous and preventable crash risk – driving with their friends."

The studies were published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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