Teen Drivers and Pickup Trucks, a Bad Mix?

What you drive, not just how, makes a difference, new study shows.

October 12, 2010, 4:44 PM

Oct. 13, 2010 — -- Every 13 minutes someone dies in a traffic accident in this country, and many of them are teenagers who are still learning how to drive. Why do we lose so many young people when they are on the threshold of adulthood?

A major new study out of the University of Texas, Austin, provides a few answers to this agonizing question, and some of them may be a bit surprising.

A teenager driving a pickup truck is twice as likely to be involved in a serious accident as a teenager driving a sedan. A teenager with one young passenger is more likely to be involved in a major accident than a teenager with two or three teenage passengers. A teenager, or anyone else, for that matter, is more likely to be involved in a serious accident while driving to school during morning rush hour than any other time of the day.

These are among the conclusions from a multi-year study of data collected by a Congressionally-mandated research project that sent safety experts to nearly 7,000 serious traffic accidents across the United States from 2005 through 2007.

The primary purpose of the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Study was to see which technological innovations might help reduce the highway slaughter across the country.

But a team of researchers from the University of Texas refined the data to look specifically at injurious or fatal accidents involving drivers between the ages of 16 and 20, thus providing a penetrating look at why so many teenagers are involved in so many serious accidents.

"Some of the findings surprised us substantially," Chandra Bhat, one of three authors of a study in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, said in a telephone interview. "It's a very rich data set."

Anyone who has watched a young driver rip away from an intersection probably figures the answers are obvious: Aggressive driving, inexperience, a willingness to take chances, and of course alcohol, are deadly on the highway. However, the exhaustive study sheds new light on the subject.

It indicates, for example, that there is a huge difference between a 16-year-old and a 19-year-old when it comes to safely operating a deadly machine.

Traffic Data Collected by Safety Researchers With On-Scene Access After Accidents

Bhat's team broke the data down to two groups, 16-to-17-year-old drivers, and 18-to-19-year-old drivers. A driver in the younger group is 368 percent more likely to drive aggressively than a senior citizen, which may not seem all that surprising. But a teenager just a couple of years older is only 195 percent more likely to drive aggressively than a senior. That's a dramatic change in a relatively short period of time.

Those conclusions are possible because of the nature of the national traffic study, conducted by the Department of Transportation. The data was collected by trained safety researchers who had a unique level of on-scene access to drivers, witnesses and officers following thousands of accidents.

"The idea was for the researchers to get to the accident location at about the same time as emergency crews," Bhat said. "They interviewed people on site and looked at the totality of circumstances," including whether the driver was behaving aggressively, a key component in many accidents.

Bhat has been involved in traffic research for years now, but he became particularly interested in teen drivers when he experienced one of those life-changing events. His daughter was about to be eligible for her driver's license.

Rajesh Paleti and Naveen Eluru, also of the University of Texas, joined Bhat in an effort to see what the data collected during the national survey could reveal about teenage drivers. The data showed that the younger the driver, the greater the potential risk of injury or death.

"Sixteen-year-olds are found to be particularly at risk of serious crashes (34.5 per million miles) relative to 17-year-olds (20.2 per million miles) and 18-year-olds (13.8 per million miles.) For drivers in their 20s, this falls to 7.8 (per million miles,)" the study found. So a little more experience, and little more maturity, makes a huge difference.

The study also found that one teenage passenger in a car driven by a fellow teen poses a greater risk than two or three teenage passengers. That may seem counterintuitive, but the researchers offer this possible explanation:

"A single young passenger may distract the driver more through engaging in conversation or trying to draw attention, while having more than one young passenger may allow the young passengers to keep each other occupied."

Safest Vehicle? The Family Van Least Likely to Be in an Accident

Bhat said that finding may force a reexamination of driving restrictions in various states that limit a teenager to just one other passenger in the vehicle. More passengers expose more persons to possible injuries, but limiting the number to one makes an accident more likely.

Bhat suggests that perhaps the solution is to prohibit teens from having any teenage passengers in the car, but he admits even his own daughter won't like that suggestion.

Perhaps surprisingly, the study found that the type of vehicle driven by a teenager figures into the likelihood of a serious accident. Drivers of pickup trucks were twice as likely to be involved in a major accident as drivers of sedans, vans or SUVs.

The safest vehicle? The family van is least likely to be in an accident, but the driver of an SUV is less likely to be severely injured than the driver in any other type of vehicle.

The reason why a pickup truck is so deadly might best be left to psychologists, but Bhat suggests that a powerful pickup lends itself to aggressive driving, a major factor in traffic accidents.

Morning rush hour turned out to be the most dangerous time for a teenager to be on the road. Bhat thinks that may be partly because younger people are more likely to be sleepy in the early morning hours than older folks, and if they are late to class, and have a powerful vehicle, maybe everybody else needs to move out of the way.

Of course, these findings are general in nature, and will not apply equally to everybody. As Bhat's daughter tells him often, not all teenagers are the same. Still, the statistics speak for themselves. Maybe he's right that it's time to reexamine the regulations that apply to teenage drivers.