Distracted Teen Driving: The Hazards of Having Friends in the Car

Why teens are more likely to crash when transporting passengers.

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It’s a well-known fact that driving with friends can increase a teen’s crash risk, which is why many states have laws restricting the number of passengers that teen drivers can transport. Now researchers from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm insurance have shed light on why teens’ driving skills can spin out of control when friends are in the car.

Car accidents are the No. 1 cause of death among U.S. teens, who are four times as likely as adult drivers to be involved in fatal crashes. Two new studies published in the Journal of Adolescent Health pinpoint which teens are likely to drive with friends and how extra passengers can hinder their driving before a crash.

In one study that surveyed 198 teen drivers, researchers found that those teens most likely to drive with multiple passengers were “thrill-seekers” who didn’t accurately perceive the risks inherent in driving and suspect that their parents are not monitoring their behavior.

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Thankfully, these teens are in the minority, says study author Jessica Mirman, behavioral researcher at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Most teens reported an understanding for driving risks and rules set by their parents, according to the research.

In a second study, researchers analyzed a nationally representative sample of 677 teen drivers involved in serious crashes. They compared the likelihood of driver distraction and risk-taking just before the crash, when teens were driving with additional passengers and when they were solo.

Both male and female drivers were more likely to be distracted before a crash if they were accompanied by passengers. Of those drivers who reported being distracted by activity inside their car before a crash, 71% of males and 47% of females said they were distracted directly by their passengers.

When compared with males driving alone, males with passengers were almost six times more likely to perform an illegal maneuver and more than twice as likely to drive aggressively before a crash. Overall, females rarely drove aggressively prior to a crash.

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The studies’ authors say teens may not realize how distracting passengers can be. Friends — intentionally or not — can promote risky driving. It’s up to parents to temper the trend.

“It’s critical that parents stay involved in their teens’ driving beyond the learner permit phase,” said Chris Mullen, research director at State Farm, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This includes continuing to monitor their driving activities and to review ways teens can be safe drivers and passengers.”