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Protecting Teen Drivers

Timothy O'Brien | February 12, 2016

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Teen driver

As a parent of three, I recall the many safety concerns that arise when a teenager becomes a newly licensed driver. As an insurance veteran, my experience reveals that, for too many parents, an even bigger concern than safety is the dramatic increase in auto insurance premiums.

While assisting consumers to manage their insurance costs is surely important, helping teenage drivers reduce their vulnerability to a life-changing accident provides an opportunity to deliver a much greater impact. By instructively managing our conversations with parents focusing on cost, insurance practitioners can capitalize on an ideal opportunity to demonstrate to clients the value of adopting risk management strategies to better protect their children.

Volumes of articles have been published examining the coverage challenges that must be addressed when insuring newly licensed drivers. While addressing the coverage issues is indeed important, this article will examine the safety risks facing inexperienced drivers and provide readers with resources, information, and actionable solutions to help better protect young drivers.

Plenty of Data To Explain the Higher Costs

While discussions with consumers about the cost to insure a teenage driver involve confusion and dismay, there is an abundance of evidence to substantiate, even to skeptics, the higher costs required to insure inexperienced drivers. With help from studies conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the following statistics can be helpful in making parents and teenage drivers aware of the risks associated with insuring inexperienced drivers.

  • For every mile driven, teen drivers have crash rates three times greater than drivers ages 20 and older.
  • In 2012, teenagers accounted for 8 percent of motor vehicle crash deaths. Teenagers represented 10 percent of passenger vehicle occupant deaths among all ages, 6 percent of pedestrian deaths, 3 percent of motorcyclist deaths, 11 percent of bicyclist deaths, and 13 percent of all-terrain vehicle rider deaths.
  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year olds. A total of 2,823 teenagers, ages 13–19, died in motor vehicle crashes in 2012.
  • Why does it cost more to insure males? Almost two out of every three teenagers killed in crashes in 2012 were males.
  • Why are some states more expensive? States with strong restrictions to teenage drivers (e.g., graduated licensing, bans on nighttime driving, and teen passengers) found substantially lower fatal crash rates and insurance claim rates.
  • June and July are the months with the highest risk for teenage crash deaths.
  • Fifty-three percent of motor vehicle crash deaths among teenagers in 2012 occurred on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.
  • The hours 9:00 p.m. to midnight have the highest percentage of teenage motor vehicle crash deaths (17 percent).
  • A May 2012 report revealed the risk of 16- or 17-year old drivers being killed in a crash increases by 44 percent with one passenger, doubles with two passengers, and quadruples with three or more passengers.
  • Research suggests 1 in 10 teens in high school drinks and drives. Drivers between ages of 16 and 20 are 17 times more likely to die in a crash when they have a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of 0.08 percent than when they have not been drinking.
  • Males are more likely than females to have high BAC above 0.08 percent. Among fatally injured passenger vehicle drivers ages 16–17, 18 percent of males and 10 percent of females had BACs at or above 0.08 percent. Among fatally injured drivers ages 18–19, 30 percent of males and 17 percent of females had BACs at or above 0.08 percent.

The Reasons for the Alarming Statistics

While statistics reveal the risks are indeed much higher for young drivers and their passengers than for other age groups, numbers do not provide the real insights needed to help inexperienced drivers and their parents understand the reasons for the frightening results. Fortunately, there is ample research and a lot of helpful content to provide teens and their parents with the important answers explaining why the risks are so great.

To begin, there is scientific evidence to support the common perception that teenagers do not think like adults. Research reveals brain development in adolescents causes a very different way of perceiving problems, making decisions, and especially in judging risk (think back to your teen years). The developing adolescent's limited ability to comprehend risk helps explain the many high-risk choices that contribute to the increased frequency and severity of accidents among teens. For those who are curious to learn more about this topic, I recommend "Brain Development and Risk-Taking in Adolescent Drivers," by Erin Floyd-Bann, Ed.D., and William Van Tassel, Ph.D., published by the American Driver and Traffic Safety Association. While there is no remedy to address the cognitive development challenges facing teens, there are other challenges for which practical solutions do exist.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides this excellent two-page document, "Eight Danger Zones for Teens Behind the Wheel," that risk advisers can distribute to consumers detailing the following "eight danger zones" that contribute most significantly to accidents among teens. This document also prescribes the actions parents can take to reduce each of these risks.

The CDC's Eight Danger Zones

  1. Driver Inexperience
  2. Driving with Teen Passengers
  3. Nighttime Driving
  4. Not Using Seat Belts
  5. Distracted Driving
  6. Drowsy Driving
  7. Reckless Driving
  8. Impaired Driving

While seven of these eight factors are also dangerous practices for even highly experienced drivers, research reveals they are especially dangerous for teens with little driving experience and a difficulty understanding the consequences of risky behavior. Addressing several of these risk factors merits extra close attention, and there is an especially significant amount of quality research to provide teens and their parents to document the dangers of impaired and distracted driving.

For example, the following sites offer substantive content to examine the dangers associated with impaired driving.

A Rapidly Growing Risk: Distracted Driving

While statistics indicate impaired driving among teens is on a modest recent decline, few will be surprised to learn that driving while distracted is a rapidly increasing trend among teenage drivers. In a 2015 study incorporating the use of video to examine the causes of accidents involving teenage drivers, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found significant evidence that distracted driving is a far more significant risk than previously known. AAA's unprecedented video analysis revealed driver distraction was a factor in nearly 6 out of 10 moderate-to-severe teen crashes—four times higher than was previously estimated on police accident reports.

As determined by AAA in Using Naturalistic Data To Assess Teen Driver Crashes, the most common forms of distraction leading up to a crash by a teen driver are interacting with passengers (15 percent), cellphone use (12 percent), looking within the vehicle (10 percent), looking outside the vehicle (9 percent), singing/dancing (8 percent), grooming (6 percent), or reaching for an object (6 percent).

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety should be applauded for this important research, and those in the insurance community should be directing consumers to review the complete report and these important findings and resources provided by AAA. Realizing that video footage can often have a greater impact on changing actual behavior, consider directing those you serve to this series of videos provided by the NHTSA to more clearly demonstrate the consequences of distracted driving.

Many Resources Available To Manage These Risks

Helping teens and their parents understand the reasons for the many risks they face as inexperienced drivers is only a starting point. The much bigger opportunity for risk advisers is to provide teens and their parents with solutions they can use to better manage these many risks. As a logical starting point, expect that no teenagers and very few parents will propose that parent and child enter into a written agreement stipulating how the car is to be operated. Risk advisers should understand this as an important missed opportunity to positively influence teens and direct parents to sample agreements they can use to try and establish clear expectations and safe-driving practices. There are several good ones available for free, including the following.

Technological Solutions for Technology Risks

Many parents are often unaware of the software applications that can restrict the use of cell phones while driving. Other apps allow parents greater control over their child's phone, even being notified when the car exceeds a predetermined speed. The following are a few technological solutions of which parents should be aware.

  • Truce is a subscription service that is vehicle-motion activated, preventing the driver from sending or receiving texts, e-mails, and phone calls; surfing the Web; taking selfies; or engaging in other dangerous activities.
  •®, by iSpeech®, reads aloud text messages and emails in real time. It can respond without the need for the driver to touch the phone.

What Teens Drive Matters Greatly

As risk advisers know, the criteria used by teens (and even parents) in selecting a first car rarely prioritizes safety. Arming parents with the research and safety insights from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) can help them at least consider safety when making the important decision about the vehicle their inexperienced operator should be driving. The IIHS makes these four recommendations in selecting a safe car for teens.

  • Avoid cars with high horsepower.
  • Bigger and heavier vehicles provide better protection in a crash. There are no minicars or small cars on the recommended list.
  • Electronic stability control (ESC) is a prized safety feature, as it helps young drivers maintain control of the vehicle on curves and slippery roads.
  • Vehicles should have the best safety ratings possible. At a minimum, that means good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front test, acceptable ratings in the IIHS side crash test, and four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Consider making it a standard practice to provide clients who are parents of teen drivers with access to the eye-opening safety report "Safe and Affordable: Updated Used Vehicle Recommendations for Teens" as another example of the greater value of the services you provide as a personal risk management adviser.

National Teen Driver Safety Week

If you did not know there was such a week, neither did I until very recently. The NHTSA has developed a robust "5 to Drive" campaign to create extra attention on the five rules teen drivers need to follow to stay safe behind the wheel. The rules focus on the five greatest dangers for teen drivers: cell phones, passengers, speeding, alcohol, and safety belts.

The campaign is eager to support all organizations that educate teens and their parents by offering sample press releases, infographics for use on social media sites, flyers, and other materials that can be used to advocate for safe driving. Examine all of the content that can be customized to help your organization support this important cause in your community.


Many in our industry seem to have abandoned the opportunity to compete with direct marketers who use gimmickry to market low-cost auto coverage. Insurance practitioners who perceive they offer consumers "more" than just a low premium should be honest when defining what their "more" includes. In conducting research for this article, I uncovered one example of an insurance agency that has used this topic to offer consumers a lot more, and I am happy to provide their website as an example for others to aspire to.

Especially considering the media's heightened focus on the risks associated with distracted driving, insurance professionals should recognize a golden opportunity to provide the greater value of helping to protect our nation's least experienced and most vulnerable drivers. The resources spotlighted in this article reveal there is a great opportunity to provide families with teen drivers helpful insights and solutions to reduce the risk of accidents and heartache.

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