[Study] Causes of Teen Car Accidents

Teenagers receiving their driver’s permit or driver’s license is a significant milestone in their lives. It is a rite of passage that provides them with a newfound independence and freedom. Along with the excitement of driving comes serious responsibility to keep teenage drivers and other drivers on the road safe.

Before parents and guardians hand over the keys to their teen’s first car, it is important to understand that car accidents are one of the most prevalent causes of death in teens. In this study, we examine the relationship between teenage drivers and car accidents. We will discuss whether teenage car accidents have increased or decreased, and take a closer look at the potential causes.

Who Are Considered Teenage Drivers?

For the purposes of this study, teenage drivers are individuals aged 15 to 20 years old that operate a vehicle. Teenager drivers earned their driver’s permit or license for the first time. They tend to be inexperienced drivers on the road and are three times more likely to be involved in car accidents than adults.

Are Teen Car Accidents Increasing Over The Years?

The National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported 1,885 teenage drivers died in car accidents in 2020 resulting in a 17% increase from the 1,616 in 2019. Record-breaking numbers of 5,037 teen fatalities from collisions were recorded in 2020. As a result of the highest number of teenage fatalities from car accidents, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) named motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death for teenage drivers in the United States.


On the other hand, there has been a 7% decrease in sustained injuries from car crashes. In 2019, there were 204,862 teen drivers injured whereas in 2020, only 189,950 individuals were harmed. The most compelling evidence of the increase of teenage car accident statistics is that men tend to be involved in collisions significantly more than women. Overall, male teenage drivers were more than twice as likely to be involved in a collision than women.

Potential Causes of Increased Teen Car Accidents

Unfortunately, teen drivers engage in unsafe driving practices more frequently than other age groups. It is important to understand the potential causes of increased teen car accidents before developing solutions to address this issue.

Teenagers are more likely to drive under the influence of alcohol or substances, drive distracted by their phones, drive drowsy, recklessly speed, and fail to use their seatbelts. Recognizing the challenges and risks faced by teenage drivers, the breakdown of statistics is done according to each potential cause.

Drowsy Driving

The CDC defines drowsy driving as operating a motor vehicle while fatigued or tired. In most cases, drowsy driving occurs when the driver did not get enough rest, however, some drivers may have undiagnosed sleep disorders. Drowsiness can cause drivers to have reduced capacity to focus on the road, impairs reflexes such as abrupt braking or steering, and decreases the ability to make sound judgements.

Across the United States, drowsy driving was reported as the cause of 2.2%-2.6% fatal car accidents from 2005 to 2009. In 2017, there were 91,000 drowsy driving accidents that left 50,000 individuals injured and 800 people dead. Although drowsy driving car accidents can happen at any time, the most common causes of collisions are:

  • Time of day: Drowsy driving car crashes tend to happen between 12am and 6am or in the late afternoon. During these times, most people experience sleepiness when commuting to or from work.
  • Solo drivers: Individuals that drive alone and experience drowsiness tend to speed off of the road without using their brakes.
  • Type of road: Collisions caused by drowsy driving tend to occur often on rural roads and highways.

An equally important factor of drowsy driving among teenagers is that they are not getting enough quality rest because school starts extremely early in the morning. The starting time for classes in the majority of high schools (93)% and middle schools (83%) in the United States is before 8:30am. Unfortunately if these students decide to fall asleep after 10pm, they will receive less hours of sleep than the recommended 8-10 hours by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Altogether teenagers that participate in drowsy driving experience reduced capacity to focus on the road, impaired reflexes, and diminished ability to make sound judgements caused by drowsiness are significant contributing factors to these incidents. Furthermore, the early start times of schools in the United States can also lead to a lack of quality rest, further exacerbating the problem.

Drunk Driving

Drunk driving can be extremely dangerous because it can cause fatal car crashes for all drivers. Although there has been a 54% decrease in teenage drunk driving since 1991, it is still one of the main causes of fatal car accidents for young drivers. According to a survey, 85% of high school teenagers who admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol in the last month were binge drinking. For the purpose of the survey, binge drinking was defined as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages within a few hours.

Researchers used to believe that brain development peaked in childhood and began to slow down at adolescence, however recent studies suggest that adolescence is a critical period for brain development. Binge drinking during adolescence can disrupt the normal trajectory of brain development and lead to lasting impairments in cognitive functions such as attention, memory, and social skills.

According to the CDC, when young drivers (ages 16-20) have a blood alcohol concentration of .08%, they are 17 times more likely to die in a car crash than if they had not consumed alcohol. Approximately 20% of teenage drivers involved in fatal collisions had consumed alcohol. Among these drivers, the majority (81%) had blood alcohol concentrations higher than the legal .08% BAC for adults. In the United States, it is against the law for individuals under the age of 21 to drive after drinking. The dangerous combination of binge drinking and driving can have devastating consequences, with teenage drivers being at an especially high risk of fatal collisions.

Drugged Driving

It is illegal to drive under the influence of any drug including illicit drugs such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and certain prescription or over-the-counter medications. There are various effects on brain functioning depending on the type of drug that was consumed. According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, the most common types of drugs that are taken while driving are prescription medication, depressants, stimulants, and psychedelics. Here are the various symptoms you may feel while under the influence of these drugs:

  • Prescription Medications: drowsiness, nausea, shaky, dizzy, and increased aggression
  • Depressants (alcohol, oxycodone, heroine): slow down activity in the body, reduced reaction time, drowsiness, difficulty processing information
  • Stimulants (cocaine, amphetamines): speed up activity in the body, difficulty paying attention, fidgety behavior, aggressive and reckless driving
  • Psychedelics (cannabis, LSD, mushrooms, mescaline): blurry vision, disoriented thoughts, decreased motor function, may have hallucinations which has an unpredictable effect on driving

Teenagers reported driving under the influence of alcohol (8%) or marijuana (4.7%) in 2018. Furthermore, in 2017, 1 out of every 8 high school student drivers reported driving after using marijuana at least once during the previous month.

Distracted Driving

Distracted driving refers to any activity that diverts attention away from the road. Activities include talking or texting on a cellphone, eating or drinking, fidgeting with the entertainment or navigation system in the car, or even having an animated conversation with other passengers in the car.

Teenagers are at an increased risk of distracted driving because they are inexperienced drivers and rely heavily on technology, even when they are driving. The most common distraction for teenage drivers is using a mobile device. Teenagers tend to text, talk on the phone, video chat, access the internet or take selfies while driving.

To put it differently, research has found that teenagers who text while driving are at a higher risk of crashing, with 1 in 3 teenagers admitting to texting while driving. Teenagers that dial a phone number while driving can increase the risk of a crash by 6 times, whereas texting while driving can increase the risk by 26 times. These distractions can cause teens to take their eyes off of the road, their hands off of the wheel, and divert their attention elsewhere which can lead to serious car accidents.

Seat Belt Use

Unfortunately, seat belt usage is the lowest among teenage drivers. The NHTSA found in 2020, 52% of teen drivers that died in car accidents were unbuckled. To emphasize the severity of this issue, 9 out of 10 of the passengers involved in those fatal car accidents were unbuckled and died as well. Teenagers do not understand the importance of seat belt use and tend to have a false sense of invincibility.


Speeding is a serious safety issue for teenage drivers. In fact, 31% of teen drivers were involved in fatal crashes caused by speeding. The Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA) found that teen drivers were involved in 19,447 car accidents related to speeding from 2000-2011. Teenagers notably increase their speed as they gain more driving experience, regardless of the type of road they are on or the weather conditions.