Young drivers (17-24 years old) are at a much higher risk of crashing than older drivers. Drivers aged 17-19 only make up 1.5% of UK licence holders , but are involved in 9% of fatal and serious crashes where they are the driver [1a].
Data on British drivers shows that:
- Drivers aged 16-19 are a third more likely to die in a crash than drivers aged 40-49 .
- One in four 18-24 year olds (23%) crash within two years of passing their driving test .
- Young male drivers are involved in many more crashes than young female drivers .
Take action: Support Brake’s L for Later campaign to reduce young driver deaths.
Why are young drivers more at risk?
Research shows that the combination of youth and inexperience puts younger drivers at high risk. Their inexperience means they have less ability to spot hazards, and their youth means they are particularly likely to take risks. In this way, crash risk not only reduces over time with experience but also is higher for drivers who start driving at a younger age .
Below are some of the specific characteristics of young drivers that put them at high risk of crashes.
Young people quickly pick up the physical skills of driving and, as a result, feel they have mastered it and are often over-confident about their driving ability. However, while the practical skills of driving can be mastered quickly, some (less obvious) skills such as hazard perception require more experience . This means young drivers may think they are in control when they are actually driving unsafely , and become more likely to take risks as they believe their skills are improving . Research has found that young drivers who show overconfidence in self-assessment of their skills are more likely to crash in their first two years of driving than those who are insecure about their driving skills .
Poor assessment of hazards
Although some hazards on the road are easy to identify, there are some situations where hazards are not immediately obvious. It often takes experience to notice these hidden hazards, so inexperienced young drivers may not notice them and react in time. Research has shown young drivers show poorer attention, visual awareness, hazard recognition and avoidance, and are less able to judge appropriate speed for circumstances .
Driving requires constantly balancing the attention needed for practical tasks such as steering and changing gears, and more cognitively demanding tasks such as hazard identification . Because of their inexperience young drivers need to concentrate more on practical tasks, so are slower to switch between tasks and slower to react to hazards .
Brake research has found that young drivers are more likely to take many of the most serious risks, including speeding, overtaking blind, driving on drugs, and not wearing seat belts . This may be because the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that helps control impulses and emotions and assesses risk, is not fully developed until your mid-20s .
Young people also underestimate certain high-risk behaviours. For example, research has shown that young drivers are less likely than older drivers to rate speeding as high risk . Take action: Run a community campaign with young people, with Brake’s help.
Common risky behaviours
Excessive or inappropriate speed is known to be a key contributory factor in crashes involving young drivers in the UK  and elsewhere. Research has found that a third of fatal young driver crashes in the USA are speed-related .Learn more: Read our fact pages on the risks of speeding.
Drink and drug driving
Drivers in their 20s have the highest rates of both drink and drug driving crashes . Young drivers who crash are twice as likely to be impaired by alcohol as older drivers who crash, and this is far more common among young men than young women . The prevalence of drug driving is harder to measure due to inconsistent reporting, but one study found that almost one in 10 (9%) of 17-24 year olds in the UK admit having driven on drugs .Learn more: Read our fact pages on drink driving and drug driving.
Not wearing seat belts
Young drivers and passengers are less likely to always wear seat belts , and may not belt up when in a car with friends due to peer pressure. American research has found that seat belt use by young drivers decreases as the number of young passengers they carry increases .Learn more: Read our fact page on seat belts and crash protection.
Young drivers need to concentrate more on driving than more experienced drivers, which makes them more susceptible to distraction, for example from mobile phones . Despite this, evidence suggests young drivers are more likely than older drivers to use their mobile phones at the wheel: a Brake survey found that 19% of young drivers admitted texting at the wheel at least once a month, compared with 11% of older drivers taking this risk . American research has found that 80% of young drivers make or receive phone calls while driving and 72% text .Learn more: Read our fact page on the risks of distraction.
Other risk factors
Research shows that peer pressure can encourage bad driving and result in drivers ‘showing off’ to their passengers and taking more risks. 16-17 year-old drivers are up to four times more likely to die in a crash when carrying young passengers than when driving alone, but 62% less likely when carrying older adult passengers, indicating it is peer pressure rather than simply the presence of passengers that raises the risk . Young passengers can also cause distraction: teenage drivers are six times more likely to have a serious incident when there is loud conversation in the vehicle .
Driving at night
Young drivers have a higher proportion of crashes in the evenings and early mornings. This is particularly true for young male drivers: in the UK, male drivers aged 17-20 are seven times more likely to crash than all male drivers, but between the hours of 2am and 5am their risk is 17 times higher . Young drivers’ high risk at night is thought to be because they are most likely to be driving for recreational purposes, and more likely to be drunk or drugged, or taking risks such as speeding due to peer pressure . It may also be because drivers at night are more likely to be driving tired .
Driving at night also requires extreme care. Young drivers may be under the impression that because roads are quieter at night it is safer for them to speed or pay less attention. In fact, driving at night takes more care due to poorer visibility, and greater likelihood of drink drivers or drunk pedestrians on the roads. Learn more: Read our fact page on the risks of driving tired.
Studies have found that young drivers involved in crashes tend to be driving older vehicles . Young drivers often drive older, potentially unsafe vehicles as these are cheaper. This is risky because older vehicles are less safe: they have less advanced crash protection, so crashes involving older vehicles are more likely to be fatal .