A study released today from the research alliance of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and State Farm Insurance Companies(R) in the journal Pediatrics sheds light on an often-overlooked group of teen drivers: those without a license. According to national traffic fatality data, this group is disproportionately involved in fatal crashes. The 2006 National Young Driver Survey (NYDS) of more than 5,500 teens across the country revealed that about six percent of students in grades 9 through 11 reported driving unsupervised without a license. However, according to the national fatality data, a full 20 percent of 14- to 18-year-old drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2006 did not have a license. This means unlicensed teens are significantly over-represented in fatal crashes.
'According to our survey, unlicensed teen drivers engage in unsafe driving behaviours more often than their legally driving peers,' says Flaura Koplin Winston, M.D., Ph.D., co-scientific director of CHOP's Centre for Injury Research and Prevention and a co-author of the study. 'Unlicensed teens are more likely to report not wearing a seat belt, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and driving without a purpose, behaviours known to be associated with fatal crashes.' Dr Winston co-wrote the study with Michael Elliott, Ph.D., a biostatistician at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, M.S.Ed. of CHOP.
'This issue also impacts those who share the roads with unlicensed drivers,' notes Laurette Stiles, vice president of Strategic Resources at State Farm. 'As the nation's largest auto insurer we are committed to working with researchers, educators, and parents to reach out to all teens to address risky teen driving behaviours.'
Researchers say knowing which teens are driving without a license makes it possible to develop effective interventions to address unsafe behaviours that are linked to an elevated risk of injury and death. In addition to behavioural risk factors, the researchers identified demographic traits that are associated with a teen's likelihood to drive without a license. In the self-report survey, teens who live in central city or rural areas and identify themselves as African American or Hispanic were the most likely to say they drive without a license at least one hour per week. Researchers are careful not to oversimplify the issue, however.
'Not all kids who are driving unlicensed are doing so for the same reasons,' explains Dr Winston. 'Some are simply more likely to take risks with their driving - such as driving under the influence - which prevent them from getting or keeping a license. However, there also may be teens who need to drive to work or school but are unable to obtain or maintain a license for reasons unrelated to driving behaviour, such as unpaid fines or registration fees.'
Unlicensed teens surveyed in the NYDS were much less likely to have attended a driver's ed class than licensed teens and were about four times more likely to report that 'no one' taught them to drive compared to licensed teen drivers.
Further research is needed to better understand and address the obstacles teens face in obtaining a license. The study's authors note that while a license itself doesn't enhance safety, the licensure process may be protective if it helps teens and their families adhere to graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws and follow a systematic approach to learning to drive. Future research and outreach directed at teens from central city and rural areas may help to reduce the high rate of crash injury and fatality associated with unlicensed teens.