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Teen Driving: Analyzing Teen-Involved Fatal Car Crashes

Teen Driving Header
Sadly, most Americans have heard this story at least once: A teenager-related car accident results in a tragic death that might have been preventable. Car crashes are the leading cause of death among U.S. teens and, in the last five years, more than 13,500 of these young people have died in accidents.  
But why are teen car fatalities so common – and what can parents or public safety experts do? In search of insight and answers, we analyzed data collected by the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) between 2012 and 2016. In the process, we examined how gender, seat belt use, substance use, driving speed, geography, and other factors intersect with fatal teen car accidents.  
Read on to learn more about what could be causing such senseless deaths across America’s youths, plus what takeaways public health and safety advocates can gather from recent key data on teen auto-related deaths.

Fatal Teen Car Crashes

As new drivers, teenagers are unfortunately notorious for making mistakes on the road – insurance agencies know them as some of the riskiest drivers. Yet teenagers aren’t the only ones getting into dangerous accidents across the United States. Surprisingly, they’ve demonstrated the lowest percentage growth in fatal car crashes out of all other age groups, according to our analysis. There was around a 3 percent growth in car crash fatalities among teenagers – children aged 13 to 19 – between 2016 and 2015. Compare that to fatal car crashes involving senior citizens aged 65 to 79 – an 8.8 percent growth in the same time period – and it becomes clear that teenage driving, albeit risky, is not experiencing a deadly rise compared to other age groups.

Deadly Driving Months

Total Fatalities (A2)
At times, a teenager’s world can revolve around certain life events, like prom, graduation, or summer vacation. However, these moments are often associated with risky behaviors like drinking or pulling all-nighters.
We wanted to see whether or not more fatal teen car accidents are occurring at specific times of the year, days of the week, and hours of the day. According to the data, that’s very much the case: Teen car crash fatalities rose steadily starting in February, peaked in July, then dipped significantly in September. At least 9 percent of all teen car accident fatalities were in the summer months, compared to around 6 percent of teen accidents in February. While we don’t know the cause, it’s possible that the freedom of summer vacation enables teens to participate in riskier behavior and therefore riskier driving. The warmer weather, being more pleasant for cyclists and pedestrians, creates more opportunities for road incidents. The  American Automobile Association (AAA) found that the summer months are most deadly for teen drivers – and journalists have speculated that it’s because of increased traffic for summer vacation trips coupled with smartphone distractions. By that logic, perhaps fewer people are on the roads in January.
The deadliest day of the week last year for teenage drivers? Saturday. Also, the hours between 3:00 PM and 6:00 PM saw the highest number of fatalities for teenagers. Though it’s hard to speculate as to the cause, this takeaway could help educators, police, and emergency responders prepare for peak fatal car crash times.

Drivers vs. Passengers

Teen Crashes(A3)
We examined how many fatal car accidents involved teenage drivers and passengers. We found that not all teenagers are equal when it comes to fatal accident risk. Out of all fatal teen car crashes involving the death of the driver, boys accounted for around 70 percent of them. This may be unsurprising, for teenage boys are often associated with more reckless driving behavior. Teen boys are also twice as likely to die in car accidents than teenage girls, according to our analysis. However, some researchers in the U.S. have also linked reckless or risky driving to teenage girl drivers in recent years. Our work suggests that, while both genders are at risk for fatal car accidents, teenage boys are still riskier on the road.

Most Recent Snapshot of Seat Belt Use in 2016

No Seatbelts (A4)
Starting around the 1980s, state governments began urging drivers to use seat belts. Laws requiring these restraints were quickly passed in sweeping safety reform and the famous “Click It or Ticket” campaign encouraged many to buckle up. Though there are numerous technological safety features a consumer can now choose from, a seat belt is one of the most basic safety features available in cars. But after examining 2016 data on fatal car accidents, we found that nearly 51 percent of all teenage passengers who died in a car accident were not using a seat belt. Unfortunately, 38.4 percent of all teenage drivers who died in car crashes in 2016 were also not wearing seat belts. In other words, it’s possible that these deaths could have been prevented.

Fatal Factors of Teen Driving

Substance Use (A5)
We examined fatal teen car accidents between 2012 and 2016 to investigate the prevalence of some risky behaviors in teen drivers and how they might vary between teenage boys and girls compared to adult drivers.
Here’s what we found: Teenage boys who died in fatal crashes were generally more likely to have been drinking, doing drugs, or speeding than teenage girls. Also, teenage boys and girls involved in fatal accidents were more likely to speed than adult drivers. Fatal crashes involving adult drivers had higher rates of alcohol involvement compared to teenagers, who showed a slight decline in alcohol-involved crash deaths since previous years. Perhaps a doubling and tripling of rates in some cases and tougher laws on drunk driving have led to a slight decline in teenage boy fatal crashes involving alcohol between 2012 and 2016 – the biggest drop was between 2015 and 2016. This information could be key for educators and public health experts, who might be able to better target their preventative programs.

Fatal Factors by State

Top States (A6)
Teenagers could be at higher risks of dying in a car accident depending on where they live. Our analysis suggests that Wyoming, Alaska, Mississippi, Alabama, and New Mexico had the highest number of teen car accident deaths per 1 million residents in 2016. Still, the role of alcohol or drugs in fatal car accidents can change these risk rankings. For instance, the five worst states for drug-related teen driver fatalities included New Hampshire, Montana, and Colorado. At the same time, Montana had the second-highest number of alcohol-related teen driver fatalities, though it had dropped to second place from it’s first place position in 2015. Perhaps one of the biggest changes came from Colorado, which ranked at third place for drug-related fatal crashes for teenagers, a considerable jump from it’s ranking in 2015.

Teens on the Road

There is no one singular cause of teenage deaths resulting from car accidents. However, understanding this could potentially improve millions of lives – and, most importantly, stop thousands of teens from dying each year. Our analysis of 2012 to 2016 FARS data provides important insight into the risks that our teens could be taking on the roads plus what factors could be addressed to increase safety on America’s roads. Not only does our data show that gender, alcohol, drugs, and speeding have complex effects on teen auto-related fatalities, but other age groups are also at risk. To find out more about problems affecting America’s drivers and the ways you can protect your teen drivers on the road, please visit


To analyze teen driving and fatalities associated with teen car crashes, we used data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) from 2012 to 2016. We used factors such as alcohol or drug involvement, speeding, and restraint use to analyze any risky behaviors, and we examined fatalities across the months of the year. We compared the teenager group to other age groups to see if there were differences in behaviors or risks. We also analyzed the differences between fatalities in 2016 and previous years to understand changes in fatal crashes across all fatal accidents. In our asset examining restraint use, we only analyzed 2016 data. For our asset examining state rankings for fatal teen crashes, we calculated fatalities per one million residents total, and not fatalities per one million teenage residents. We did not perform any statistical testing on this data, and this study is exploratory.

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