NICHD Driving Risk Research Information

NICHD researchers are particularly interested in reducing the risk of injury and death associated with vehicle crashes. For that reason, researchers aim to identify risk factors for crashes, examine driving behavior and safety, and evaluate state driver education and licensing programs. Most NICHD research that focuses on driving is conducted by researchers in the Division of Population Health Research (DiPHR) or supported by the Population Dynamics Branch. NICHD research has contributed substantially to a reduction in teenage driver fatalities and injuries by, for example, demonstrating some of the underlying causes of risk for drivers, such as teenage passengers. In addition, the research has helped reduce crashes involving teenage drivers by evaluating graduated driver licensing programs around the country and by showing the importance of parental supervision on teen drivers.

NICHD-supported researchers also study the root causes of male/female differences in driving fatalities and injuries to understand why women’s crash rates are now approaching men’s rates.

The goal of all research at NICHD is to support the institute’s mission, an important part of which is “that all children have the chance to achieve their full potential for healthy and productive lives.” For this reason, a major focus of NICHD research on driving is the search for ways to reduce the risk for injury and death from inexperienced drivers.

Using naturalistic and experimental methods, NICHD research on driving has goals to determine:

  • The nature of motor vehicle crashes and the subgroups most at risk. Current research focuses on teen drivers’ exposure to known risk factors and how the exposure changes over time from licensure, whether their exposure is different from that of adults, and whether teen drivers who own their own cars have higher levels of exposure than teens who do not.
  • How driving improves over time. For example, recent studies have compared teen driving patterns with their parents’ driving patterns over the same period: (1) when the teen is first licensed and (2) during the first 18 months of licensure. This is to evaluate the effect of experience on risk of crashes.
  • The driving conditions and behaviors associated with crashes. Studies using naturalistic methods have followed new teen drivers for up to 18 months, recording behaviors and driving conditions using video cameras and a variety of other tools.
  • The effects of social influences on driving performance. Recent studies have focused on the effects of vehicle passengers on speeding and other risky driving of teen drivers to determine if the age and sex of a passenger influences the willingness of a teen driver to take risks. Other studies have sought to determine how the relative risk of involvement in a fatal crash changes with age and gender of the driver and the passenger.
  • Solutions to problems faced by novice young drivers. These include:
    • Evaluating the effectiveness of graduated driver licensing programs, which vary in their requirements from state to state
    • Studying the role of parents in implementing graduated driver licensing programs (evaluating the Checkpoints Program)
    • Determining if parent-supervised practice driving is associated with better driving performance once a teen is licensed
    • Evaluating components of graduated driver licensing programs such as nighttime driving restrictions and passenger restrictions
    • Assessing the role of race and ethnicity in the effectiveness of driver licensing programs
  • The changing effects of gender on relative risk for crash-related injury and fatality.

Much of the NICHD research on driving focuses on the risk factors that make young drivers more likely to have accidents. DiPHR researchers have been exploring these issues for several years, conducting a number of studies about crash risks and risky behaviors.

In the Naturalistic Teenage Driving Study (NTSD), DiPHR researchers attached monitoring systems to the cars of 42 new teenage drivers in Virginia and collected data on their driving behavior for 18 months. Analysis of the data showed that:

  • Teenagers’ rates of “risky driving” behaviors (such as hard braking or fast acceleration) were five times as high as those of the adults in the study, and teens were four times more likely to crash or nearly crash their cars.
  • Risky driving may be socially influenced; crashes and near crashes were 96% higher among teens who had “risky friends.”
  • Having an adult passenger in the car lowered the rate of crashes by teenage drivers by 75%, while having a teenage passenger in the car lowered the rate of risky driving by 18%.
  • A pattern of risky driving performance increases the likelihood of a crash or near crash.

Other studies of the NTSD data looked at the rate of crashes and near crashes over a longer period of time, the influence of car ownership, and the rate of hard-braking events.

In a separate study, the DiPHR researchers analyzed data on fatal teen car accidents from the U.S. National Household Travel Survey and found that those at highest risk of fatal crashes were young male drivers with passengers 16 to 20 years of age.

NICHD-funded research also looked at other risk factors for teenage driving, such as gender, alcohol use, and distracted driving. One study found that female involvement in fatal crashes has increased over time, especially for those younger than 20. This is due in part to an increase in risky driving by teenage girls.

The researchers also found that females were less likely than males to be involved in alcohol-related nonfatal crashes, but there was no gender difference related to fatigue or improper maneuvering. A separate study found that, on a test track, teenage drivers were less likely than experienced drivers to notice and respond to a road hazard.

NICHD also invests in solutions for the safety of teenage drivers. DiPHR researchers developed the Checkpoints Program, a driver education program that encourages parents to supervise their teenage drivers and to model good driving behavior. Parents and teen agree to a series of restrictions to help the teen develop good driving skills over time. These limitations include an initial ban on night driving. Once a month they "check in" with each other, regularly assessing the teen’s skill level and removing restrictions as appropriate.

Evaluation in a number of studies conducted by DiPHR researchers has shown that Checkpoints is effective. For example, parents who received Checkpoints materials were more aware of teen driving risks, were more likely to have completed a parent-teen driving agreement, and were more likely to impose restrictions on driving in bad weather and other conditions.

Other research has shown that programs such as graduated licensing, in which new drivers are given privileges gradually over time, can reduce the rate of fatal car crashes. Researchers funded by NICHD’s Population Dynamics Branch found that licensing limits reduce fatal crashes by 8% to 14%, with the greatest benefits coming from restrictions on driving at night and having teenage passengers.

Other driving research supported by NICHD examines voluntary cessation of driving by seniors, among other studies of driving over the lifespan. This research has found that older drivers often give up driving due to financial reasons, rather than health reasons, and that there are significant racial and gender-based differences in the reasons for driving cessation in older adults (PMID: 22574868 and PMID: 22992714).

Read additional details about NICHD-supported driving risk studies.

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