New Studies Look At Teen Drivers And Passengers: The Other Form Of Distracted Driving

January 27, 2012

Talking on cell phones and texting may be the most widely-known examples of teen distracted driving, but two new studies just released warn of the dangers that multiple passengers pose to teen drivers.

The pair of studies, from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm teen driver research partnership, was published this week in the Journal of Adolescent Research. Researchers looked at what factors influence teen drivers to drive with multiple friends, and, once multiple friends are present in the car, what distractions happen in the moments before a crash.

The results of the new findings build upon previous research that one teen riding with a young driver’s car doubles the risk of a crash, while three or more teen passengers quadruple the risk. Yet only 10 percent of teens think that having multiple passengers along is in any way hazardous.

While experts have long known that peer passengers increase driver crash risk, what hasn’t been well understood until now is how they increase the risk of a crash. “These studies help us understand the factors that may predispose teens to drive with multiple friends and how those passengers may contribute to crashes by distracting the driver and promoting risky driving behaviors, such as speeding, tailgating or weaving,” said study author Allison Curry, PhD, director of epidemiology at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention.

“Knowing this, we can develop programs that work in tandem with Graduated Driver Licensing laws that limit the number of passengers for teens during their first year of driving.”

Teen Driver - photo courtesy of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Teen Driver - photo courtesy of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

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Results of the studies

The first study, involving 198 teen drivers, found that teens who are most likely to drive with multiple passengers share similar characteristics: they identify themselves as “thrill-seekers,” perceive their parents as not setting rules or monitoring their whereabouts, and have a weak perception of the risks associated with driving in general.

Jessica Mirman, PhD, study author and a behavioral researcher, noted that these teens are in the minority, adding that “Teens in this study generally reported strong perceptions of the risks of driving, low frequencies of driving with multiple passengers, and strong beliefs that their parents monitored their behavior and set rules.”

The second study analyzed a nationally-representative sample of 677 teen drivers involved in serious crashes to compare the likelihood of driver distraction and risk-taking behaviors just prior to the crash when teens drive with peer passengers and when they drive alone.

In this second study, both male and female teen drivers with peer passengers were more likely to be distracted just before a crash compared to teens that crashed while driving solo.

Among teens who reported being distracted by something in the vehicle directly before the crash, 71 percent of males and 47 percent of females said they were distracted directly by their passengers’ actions.

In addition, study researchers found that males with passengers were nearly six times more likely to perform an illegal maneuver and more than twice as likely to drive aggressively prior to a crash, compared to males driving alone. In contrast, the study found that females rarely drove in an aggressive manner before a crash, whether or not they had passengers in the car.

What parents can do

While the results of the two studies may be troubling to parents, especially if their teens are approaching or already driving, Dr. Curry recommends several things parents can do.

  • Be involved and supportive. “The role of parents in teen driver safety is essential,” said Dr. Curry. “Research keeps demonstrating the protective benefits of involved and supportive parents. Teens need their parents’ time and attention during the learner permit phase in order to get at least 50 hours of supervised practice driving. But they also need their parents to set and enforce clear rules that will protect them during the first six to twelve months of independent driving.”
  • Monitor teens’ driving during the first year. “While it is appropriate to give responsible teens increasing freedom and independence in most things, when it comes to driving, all teens need extra support and monitoring to help keep them safe.” Dr. Curry advises that  parents carefully monitor their teens’ driving for the first year after receiving their probationary license, limit the number of passengers they drive, and work with their teens to develop “clear house rules” about carrying peer passengers, especially during the first six months of independent driving. In addition, parents can discuss ways their teen can be a safe passenger when they ride with others.
  • Emphasize that rules are about safety, not control. Teens can react negatively to what they consider to be preaching or controlling behavior on the part of their parents. A more effective approach, according to Dr. Curry, is for parents to “emphasize that these rules are in place because they care about their teens and want to keep them safe. Parents can reward their teen by lifting restrictions as they demonstrate experience and skill with different driving conditions, as well as responsibility around driving and peer relationships.”

Parents also have access to the most up-to-date research and actionable advice in the “I am a Parent” section of Center for Injury Research and Prevention website at

Also see our earlier article on AAA’s big push in 2012 on the issues of distracted driving and teen driver safety here.

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