iStock_000011027172_LargeProtecting Teen Drivers

Driving is a complex skill that takes time to learn. Age and inexperience combine to make teens especially vulnerable to having a crash. Providing opportunities for teens to obtain extensive practice driving in a safe, but real, driving environment helps them to develop their driving skills. Policies such as Graduated Drivers Licensing (GDL) are designed to ensure new drivers acquire plenty of experience. GDL has led to significant reductions in crashes, injuries and deaths since it was adopted in North Carolina in 1997. Crashes decreased 38 percent for 16-year-olds and 20 percent for 17-year-olds as the result of adopting GDL.1 Despite this dramatic progress, deaths from car crashes remain the leading cause of death for youth ages 15 to 19 in North Carolina.2

What can be done to protect teen and novice drivers?

  • Raise the age at which teens can first obtain an intermediate license from 16 to 16 and a half.
  • Require an extended learner license period for beginning drivers beyond the age of 18.
  • Ensure the most current and accurate guidance is available for parents and other adults who supervise teens during their learner license period.3
  • A complete set of recommendations for improving teen road safety in North Carolina was produced by the NC Child Fatality Task Force in 2012. This document provides in-depth background information on the issue as well as guidance for policymakers. The document is available at:

Additional Considerations for Teen Driving in North Carolina:

  • Age and experience make a difference in crashes, and not all “teens” have the same needs. On a per capita basis, 16-year-olds crash less often than 18-year-olds, but are twice as likely to crash per mile driven. It’s important to consider these differences when developing programs and policies designed to keep teen drivers safe.4
  • Alcohol is not a major factor in young teen crashes, despite widespread beliefs to the contrary.4 Driving after drinking increases substantially with age and becomes a serious problem among 18 to 20 year-olds.5

What about Distracted Driving?

Distracted driving often brings up the use of cell phones, but it is important to know that distraction is involved whenever a driver is paying attention to something other than the road while driving, such as reaching for something under the seat, worrying about an upcoming final exam, or eating. A distraction proven to increase crash risk is having additional young people in the car with a teen driver. This is addressed by the limit placed on young passengers riding with a teen driver by North Carolina’s existing GDL law. North Carolina also has a ban on teen cell phone use while driving, as well as a ban on texting and driving for all drivers. Though policies are in place banning teen drivers from texting and talking on cell phones while driving, crashes still take place where use of a phone was a contributing cause. Additional research is needed to understand the best prevention approaches to stop teens from using cell phones while driving.

For more information:
Natalie O’Brien
Research Associate
Center for the Study of Young Drivers &
Highway Safety Research Center
University of North Carolina
730 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., CB 3430
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3430


  1. North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force. (2012). Child death rate down 46% since inception of the Child Fatality Task Force. Retrieved from
  2. North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics. (2012). Health Data Query System: Leading causes of death in North Carolina, 2011, age 15-19 years. Available from
  3. Goodwin AH, Foss RD, Mayhew D, & Sohn J (2007). A guide for reducing young driver crashes, Guidance for implementation of the AASHTO Strategic Highway Safety Plan. Volume 19. NCHRP Report 500. Washington , DC : Transportation Research Board.
  4. North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force. (2012) Teen Road Safety in North Carolina: Putting Best Practices into Action. Retrieved from,%20Dec%202012.pdf.
  5. Foss, R. (2013, January-October). Series of personal interviews and email.
  6. O’Brien, Goodwin and Foss (2010 O’Brien, NP, Goodwin, AH, & Foss, RD (2010) Talking and texting among teenage drivers: A glass half empty or half full? Traffic Injury Prevention, 11(6).549-554.)