Critical Safety Errors of Learner Teen Drivers

September 25, 2014

Many current teen driver safety interventions are designed to help teens reduce the risk of crashing during the early independent driving period, also known as the Intermediate License phase of state Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) programs. While restrictions in this phase of GDL help to reduce crashes during those first critical months by reducing exposure to high risk driving situations, teens still enter this phase with specific skill deficits that could have been addressed more effectively in the learner phase. Ideally, driver training and supervised practice during the Learner Permit phase would be focused on the critical safety-relevant errors that teens are likely to make so that teens enter the Intermediate License phase with better tactical driving skills, rather than just the vehicle operations skills necessary to pass a basic licensing exam. 

The Teen Driver Safety Research team recently conducted research to describe the driving performance errors made by teens with learner permits, as part of the our continuing focus on the learner period. While prior research has focused on two types of errors, intersection management and glancing away from the roadway, our study adds a more comprehensive view of the nature and frequency of errors learner teens are making.

What we found is that in comparison to a group of experienced adult drivers, learner teens committed a similar number of vehicle operation errors but a substantially higher number of safety-relevant critical driving errors, including disobeying traffic signs or signals and turning into oncoming traffic. We observed a broad range of errors across a diversity of driving environments during an on-road driving assessment (ODA) at 12 and 24 weeks into their learner phase. This suggests that many teens are not developing the tactical driving skills necessary to respond safely to live traffic during the learner phase.

There was a strong association between the amount of supervised practice driving and safely finishing the ODA route, as well as a weaker association between the amount of practice and the occurrence of the number of critical driving errors. It likely takes much more than the currently recommended (in PA) 65 hours of parent supervised practice to really move the needle to reduce these critical errors.

How much parent-supervised practice is enough?
Many states already require a certain amount of parent-supervised practice driving, though typically far less than in other countries such as certain states in Australia that require 120 hours. Driving is a complex skill that takes years to master. Given that all US states require less than 70 hours of parent-supervised driving practice during the learner period as part of GDL, improving the quality of driver training and supervised practice can help parents make the most of the limited number of practice hours they have to help their teen become a safer driver.