Why young drivers have accidents

Young people – especially young men – have accidents, often because they drive too fast, too risky or too aggressive because they are too inexperienced or are too often drunk or tired behind the wheel. Often they are victims of their their driving motives, ignorance, temperament, lifestyle, but also of their biological anchoring, that favors risky driving to certain extent. Besides, social pressure of peer groups often leads to risky driving. The risk of a momentous accident increases when various risk factors occur together.

Happy young friends in a convertible.

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Since 1979, the number of road traffic fatalities of 18- to 24-year-olds in Germany had continuously been decreasing from 3760 to 493 in 2013. Despite this huge improvement, it remains a fact that young people are at highest risk of being involved in a car accident. More than a fifth killed car occupants in 2013 was between 18 and 24 years old. On the other hand the proportion of this age group was only 7.9 % in the population [1]. These figures show an unbroken need for social action to improve road safety of young drivers and riders. However, this can only be redeemed sufficiently if the causes of the high accident risk of this age group are investigated and measures are specifically tailored to this target group.

Novice drivers are at higher risk of crashing

National and international studies show the anomalously high accident risk of novice drivers who start independent driving. A special analysis of the Federal Highway Research Institute in Germany revealed that the accident risk of novice drivers reaches a peak immediately after the acquisition of the license and then decreases in the second year, sometimes earlier. The decline was 48 % in the group of novice drivers who were mainly responsible for an accident  [2]. To reduce the risk of a car accident among novice drivers, the “accompanied driving” from age 17 was implemented in Germany in 2004. This new way of preparing for novice drivers is based on a voluntary participation and gives them the chance to make own experiences under the monitoring of an experienced driver. This experience is much more extensive (due to a longer period) than a novice driver will gain participating the traditional driver training. The earliest date of starting the accompanied driving is at the age of 17 after passing the licensing exam. The results of an evaluation study confirm that the accompanied driving has a remarkable improvement in safety. The number of traffic offenses of novice drivers who have completed the accompanied driving is 20 % lower than for drivers with a traditional driver training. And the number of accidents is 23 % lower for the accomapied driving-group [3].

The “Young Men”-syndrome

The highest risk of being seriously injured or killed in road traffic have 18- to 20-year-old men, followed by the 21- to 24-year-old men. However, the high accident risk of young men should not only be explained by a lack of driving experience and the therefore by a lack of driving skills. If this were always the case, young women with the same low driving experience should have an accident risk as high as young men have. But this is not the case. The accident risk of young women is much lower than the one of young men. Regardless of the amount of driving experience, research revealed a higher risk of accidents especially for those young men who have a strong need for new and exciting events (“high sensation-seekers”), who show a stronger tendency toward aggressive behavior, who are characterized by an extensive risk-taking behavior, who stand out due to increased impulsivity, those who proved to be less conscientious and those who have a very positive attitude towards speed [8].

The influence of peers

Driving with peer passengers increases the risk of accidents of young drivers [4]. The accident risk of young drivers also increases with increasing number of other passengers [5]. However, gender differences can be observed. In the USA the risk of dying in a car accident  (calculations based on deaths per vehicle miles travelled)  is highest for 16- to 20-year-old men, who are accompanied by 16- to 20-year-old men. This is followed by 16- to 20-year-old women, who are accompanied by 16- to 20-year-old women [6].

There are two possible explanation why young drivers get influence by their accompanied peers: (1) The social norm of the peer group influence driver behavior or (2) young drivers get distracted by the acompanied peers. The social norm is reflected in the driver’s expectations. It is the expected peer acceptance or rejection of one’s own behavior. It is not yet known whether this peer group influene really exists, or whether young motorist only choose those friends who are similar to them. In this case, it should not be surprised if their own motives and behaviors match with the presumed peer acceptance or rejection. It can be assumed that both peer selection and peer influence are responsible for the similarity of behavior of young drivers and their peers. So it might be possible that peer selection takes place when young people get in contact with their peer group. Later the members of a peer group are exposed to mutual influences [7].

Psychology of growing up

Growing up is a period in one’s life, in which on the one hand a series of physical and psychological changes are intensively lived through, and on the other hand new challenges have to be mastered. During this period of maturation specific needs and wishes are becoming increasingly important, such as the acceptance of friends, selecting a mate, the detachment from the parental home, the desire for independence or taking decision on the professional future. In our society, the car will help significantly in solving these tasks. Moreover, it gives a younger persoen an “adult status”. In psychology such tasks are referred to as developmental tasks. They are typical of certain phases in one’s life. Depending on how these objects are achieved, they influence the development of a young people in a positive or negative way. If such tasks are not mastered, unhappyness, disapproaval of the society and problems in solving forthcoming tasks might occur [8].

The biological origin of risky driving

Using the theory of evolution we can explain why men – in particular young men – basically take greater risks, behave more aggressive or set greater value on status symbols than women. These differences are based on fundamentally different strategies of the two sexes to breed successfully. Men take higher risks than women. The risk strategy of men results from the fact that men compete with other men for the limited resources of life and that risk behaviour is often necessary to win the competition. And from the perspective of evolutionary psychology successful men are more reliable guarantors of the survival of their offspring than less successful men. Indicators of success are all available ressources, for example money, property, but also competences, strength, power, social status or wealth. As the psychologist David Buss has shown in his extensive research, the social status of a man is a key selection criterion for women in finding a spouse. Therefore, it is not surprising that it is very important for men to achieve the highest possible social rank and to use clear signs to express their high social status. A car is very useful to fulfil this function: Depending on the shape, design, equipment and brand a car symbolizes power, wealth and proberty.

A man drives as he lives

In the late forties the two accident researcher William Tillman and George Hobbs came to the conclusion that “people drive as they live.” People that are generally characterized by tolerance and consideration, will exibit these characteristics inside the car as well and therefore are less prone to accidents as intolerant and ruthless people. The empirical basis for this conclusion, however, was a bit narrow. Decades later, the aspect of lifestyle as a main cause of accidents, became popular in the debate on road safety of young drivers and riders. According to Richard Jessor the lifestyle of a person is determined mainly by the tendency to adopt different problem behaviors. His “theory of problem behavior” states that young people with a specific problem behavior (e.g. risky driving) often  show other problem behaviors such as drug use, unprotected sex or delinquency. There is strong empirical evidence that the lifestyles of young people has a remarkable influence on the accident risk. Two recent studies by the Federal Highway Research Institute, Germany again confirm that the lifestyle of young drivers is a highly correlated to road safety attitutes and expectations and reported driving behavior. The accident risk is highest for young people with a car-centered lifestyle [8].


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[1] Statistisches Bundesamt (2014). Verkehr. Verkehrsunfälle 2013. Wiesbaden.
Statistisches Bundesamt (2014). Verkehr. Unfälle von 18- bis 24-Jährigen im Straßenverkehr 2013. Wiesbaden.
[2] Schade, F.-D. (2001). Verkehrsauffälligkeiten mit Unfällen bei Fahranfängern. Reanalyse von Rohdaten der Untersuchung von Hanjosten & Schade (1997), Legalbewährung von Fahranfängern. Berichte der BASt, Mensch und Sicherheit, Heft M71. Unveröffentlichtes Manuskript, Flensburg: Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt.
[3] Schade, F.-D. & Heinzmann, H.-J. (2011). Summative evaluation of accompanied driving from age 17. Berichte der Bundesanstalt für Straßenwesen, Mensch und Sicherheit, Heft M218b. Bremerhaven, Bergisch Gladbach: Wirtschaftsverlag NW.
[4] Chen, L., Baker, S.P., Braver, E.R. & Li, G. (2000). Carrying Passengers as a Risk Factor for Crashes Fatal to 16- and 17-year-old Drivers. JAMA, Vol. 283 (12), 1578–1582.
[5] Chen, H.Y., Senserrick, T., Martiniuk, A.L.C., Ivers, R.Q., Boufous, S., Chang, H.Y. & Norton, R. (2010). Fatal crash trends for Australian young drivers 1997–2007: Geographic and socioeconomic differentials. Journal of Safety Research, 41, 123–128.
Doherty, S.T., Audrey, J.C. & MacGregor, C. (1998). The situational risks of young drivers: the influence of passengers, time of day, and day of week on accident rates. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 30, 45–52.
[6] Ouimet, M.C., Simons-Morton, B.G., Zador, P.L., Lerner, N.D., Freedman, M., Duncan, G.D. & Wang, J. (2010). Using the U.S. National Household Travel Survey to estimate the impact of passenger characteristics on young drivers’ relative risk of fatal crash involvement. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 42, 689–694.
[7] Urberg, K.A., Luo, Q., Pilgrim, C. & Degirmencioglu, S.M. (2003). A two-stage model of peer influence in adolescent substance use: Individual and relationship-specific differences in susceptibility to influence. Addictive Behaviors, 28, 1243–1256.
[8] Holte, H. (2012). Einflussfaktoren auf das Fahrverhalten und das Unfallrisiko junger Fahrerinnen und Fahrer. Berichte der Bundesanstalt für Straßenwesen, Mensch und Sicherheit, Heft M 229, Bremerhaven, Bergisch Gladbach: Wirtschaftsverlag NW.
Holte, H., Klimmt, C., Baumann, E. & Geber, S. (2014). Wirkungsvolle Risikokommu-nikation für junge Fahrerinnen und Fahrer. Berichte der Bundesanstalt für Straßenwesen. Mensch und Sicherheit, Heft M 249, Bremerhaven, Bergisch Gladbach: Wirtschaftsverlag NW.