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Teen drivers feel unprepared to hit the road alone

By Jessica Chen, Winnie Chan and Daniel Oloju

Youthcast Media Group®

Holly Christiansen sat alone in her driving instructor’s car, hoping a police officer wouldn't appear. Her instructor had left her there, in the driver’s seat, to run into the mall for a “quick” bathroom break, despite her not yet having her license.

This was one of many incidents that Christiansen said left her feeling uncertain, sometimes afraid, and ultimately unprepared by her driving instruction experience. Christiansen said her instructor was often distracted, or distracting. He repeatedly spit out the window while she was driving, asked her to make a phone call for him while he was behind the wheel, and finally, left her alone in the car without a license in this mall parking lot for more than 15 minutes.

Holly Christiansen (Courtesy of Christiansen).

Christiansen, then 16 years old, was doing her six hours of instruction required by New Jersey state law to obtain her learner’s permit. To meet those hours, she took paid lessons with a licensed driving instructor. New Jersey schools do not offer in-car instruction as part of driver’s education, so certified instructors like Christiansen’s are often tapped to fill the gap. But, not all instructors–or instruction–are created equal. 

“I felt unsafe,” said Christiansen. “He did not seem like a trustworthy person…The hours I did just were not very helpful.

Deficient driving instruction is just one of the many potential challenges facing new young drivers when they hit the road. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration includes inexperience, immaturity and greater susceptibility to distractions as contributing factors to teens’ higher death rate, which tops that of any age group other than those 80 and older. And it’s getting worse. Fatal crashes involving drivers 15 to 20 years old increased 11% from 4,430 in 2020 to 4,923 in 2021.

According to a survey conducted by insurance research and comparison site The Zebra in 2023, 40% of teens think driving is scary. 

Christiansen said she felt the most dangerous thing she experienced as a new driver was not understanding the right of way, and nearly getting into a collision. 

Integrating youth into the norms and culture of the road is a crucial part of making them safer drivers, said Rick Birt, director of the Washington D.C. Highway Safety Office. A general lack of awareness of how the overall system works is one of the biggest challenges facing teens, Birt said. 

“The culture of safety only works if we all abide by the same rules,” Birt said. “A four way stop sign only works because all four drivers are going to understand the order in which they go. If everybody just goes at once, guess what? We have a crash.”

Zain Ahmad, an 18-year-old Middle River, Md. resident, said the most dangerous thing he did as a new driver was not looking for cars coming from both directions when entering an intersection. Ahmad, who had only been driving for a few weeks at the time of his interview, said teens need more training and in-car instruction. 

“Not having that much experience on the road impacts a lot of drivers,” he said. “They should definitely make more requirements [for in car-training].” 

To make teen drivers safer, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have implemented a three-stage graduated driver licensing (GDL) system, which means drivers must complete increasing practice time to get restrictions on their license removed. This has reduced crash risks for new drivers by up to 50%. Birt, who was also previously president and CEO of Students Against Destructive Decisions, formerly Students Against Driving Drunk (SADD), said increasing the amount of instructional driving hours required overall could build on those improvements. 

Birt contrasts the 40-60 hours of driving experience most states require with requirements for manicurists and massage therapists, which is hundreds of hours in most states. 

“We then say it's okay and it's enough that a young person has 40 to 60 hours of driving?” Birt said.

Anika Hadap (courtesy of Hadap).

“I mean masseuses and manicurists don't have the power to kill someone,” said Anika Hadap, a 17-year-old from Princeton, New Jersey. At the time of her interview, she had been driving for eight months.

Youthcast Media Group student journalists conducted a survey of 25 of their peers, between 16 and 19 years old, about teen driver safety, including their experiences as drivers and passengers, and things that affected how safe they felt. 

While most respondents said they felt their classroom drivers’ ed training was helpful, those who also completed driving hours or additional behind-the-wheel training to get their license said it made a huge difference in their confidence and in making the lessons stick. 

“I learned when I actually, like, do the tests or perform the test,” said Ahmad. “So I feel like it definitely made me feel prepared and safe.”

"I think that there should be some sort of requirement that requires learners to have a set number of hours taught by a professional instructor,” said Joey Chan, a 19-year-old student in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the time of her interview, Chan had been driving for about a year. Chan described feeling lucky that the extra education was available to her.

Private instruction like hers is not accessible to all teens, though.

“It was quite costly, so I don't think it's quite accessible for everyone if they want to also take lessons,” Chan said.

Joey Chan  (courtesy of Chan).

But, teens seem to feel that experience–good or bad–is the best teacher. 

In the YMG survey, respondents ranked how likely they felt each of five messaging techniques would be to change their behavior: a commercial, a parent/mentor conversation, a peer-to-peer conversation, being in an accident, and a driving safety class. 

Twelve out of the 25 respondents chose “being in an accident” as the thing most likely to change their behavior. 

“I feel like there's only so much you can tell people,” said Hadap.

“The people who are going to be overconfident are always going to be overconfident until they have a close call.”

But, taking steps to reduce the danger of such real-life lessons appeals to teens and experts like Birt alike. And, Birt says youth can be an important part of the solution. In Ohio, Birt worked on a coalition that included young people who helped get a distracted driving bill passed in 2023.

“They were the ones who were sick and tired of their friends having phones in their hands, they were the ones that were tired of their parents being distracted behind the wheel.” Birt said. “And so you have a really cool and effective opportunity to engage … that can have a really big impact as well.”

Regulatory and legislative bodies exclude teens from conversations about what would make them safer drivers at their peril, Birt said, and should be doing more to actively include their voices.

“If we aren't intentional in bringing folks in, we will probably unintentionally leave them out.” Birt said. 

About half of the respondents in the YMG survey said that they spoke up when a peer was driving in a way that made them feel unsafe. The teens interviewed for this story seemed ready to use their voices, and largely agreed that requiring, and providing access to, more quality instruction behind the wheel was a good place to start.

“The more requirements, the better new drivers will perform,” said Ahmad. “You know, there's no such thing as too much training.” 

Jessica Chen is a senior at Princeton High School in Princeton, N.J. Winnie Chan is a sophomore at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C. and Daniel Oloju is a senior at Kenwood High School in Essex, Md. They were participants in a Youthcast Media Group reporting workshop on transportation and worked with YMG mentor-editor and former USA TODAY multimedia reporter Hannah Gaber. YMG is a nonprofit organization that teaches high school students across the country to report on health and social issues that impact communities of color, and the solutions to these issues.


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