Teens on the Road: How Technology, Policy and Parents Influence Driving Safety

Teens on the Road: How Technology, Policy and Parents Influence Driving Safety 1024 633 Abbie Miller

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens aged 16 to 19 in the United States. In 2019, nearly 2,400 teens died and more than 250,000 were treated in emergency departments as a result of motor vehicle crashes. Risk factors for teen motor vehicle crashes can be lumped into four main categories: inexperience, risk-taking behaviors, distracted driving and substance use.

Gaining Experience

In most U.S. states, the process of getting your driver’s license is one that involves many steps and different levels of licensure based on experience. As the teen gains experience, safety increases, but even when all the steps to full, unrestricted driver’s license are taken, the fact remains that teens are vastly under experienced when it comes to driving.

Risk-taking Behaviors

Speeding, running “orange” lights and other risky behaviors are more dangerous for teens because of their inexperience. Additionally, risky behaviors such as substance use or cellphone use while driving can also prove deadly for teens.

Distracted Driving

Distracted driving is highly linked with cellphone usage. Cellphone use may involve manual distraction (hands off the steering wheel), visual distraction (eyes off the road), and cognitive distraction (mind off driving) and includes activities such as calling, texting, looking at apps and various other uses.

A 2019 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed that 39% of high school students who drove texted and emailed while driving at least once in the month leading up to the survey.

Drinking, Drugs and Driving

Drinking any amount of alcohol before driving increases the risk of a crash among teen drivers. Given the same blood alcohol concentration (BAC), teens are more likely to crash than older drivers.

As marijuana use becomes more accepted through increased legalization and access to cannabis increases, the number of teens who drive under the influence of marijuana is also increasing. In fact, a 2020 study from JAMA Network Open reported that nearly 50% of teens that reported using marijuana also reported driving stoned.

Americans love cars. Some kids start saving for their first car before they get rid of their training wheels. And teens especially can’t wait for that moment when they have the freedom to hit the open road, or at least drive to school. It’s the subject of songs and movies, and it’s deeply ingrained in popular culture: getting that driver’s license is a ticket to freedom.

But each day in the United States, approximately seven teens die as a result of motor vehicle crashes, and an additional 685 are injured. Among teens ages 16 to 19, automobile-related accidents are the leading cause of death. Distracted driving (primarily due to cellphones) and increased substance use have joined typical teen risk-taking and inexperience as major contributors to motor vehicle crashes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2019, nearly 2,400 teens died and more than 250,000 were treated in emergency departments as a result of motor vehicle crashes.

Even with the risks, driving is an important skill for many teens to learn. In the United States, driving is a nearly unavoidable part of life in much of the country.

For decades, researchers in the Center for Injury Research and Policy (CIRP) in the Abigail Wexner Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital have been working with teens, parents, policymakers and pediatricians to understand teen driving behaviors
and promote safe driving.

Some of that work, in combination with other efforts across the country, has changed the safety baseline for young drivers. From graduated driver licensing — going from learner’s permit to restricted license to full license — and hands-free cellphone laws to apps that monitor driving and provide feedback to teens (and their parents), a variety of policies and tools have been developed that have the potential to increase safe driving among teens.

Parent-Teen Driver Relationships

Keeping the parent-teen relationship positive is a long-standing goal of safe driving researchers and advocates.

“The parent-child relationship is where safe driving starts,” says Dennis Durbin, MD, MSCE, chief scientific officer at the Abigail Wexner Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s and injury prevention and policy researcher. “In both the learner permit phase and the restricted driver phase, parents establish the expected behaviors and enforce them with consequences.”

If you’ve ever been a teen learning to drive from your parent — or a parent teaching your teen to drive — you know that this can be a stressful process leading to fraught relationships.

“The parent-focused approach to safe teen driving relies on more than just setting rules and expectations — parents need to be proactive in motivating their teens to engage in safe driving behaviors early on,” says Jingzhen (Ginger) Yang, PhD, MPH, principal investigator in CIRP. “And research shows that this can be a very effective approach.”

But after the learner permit phase of driving licensure, parents aren’t always around to observe teen drivers and provide feedback. Can technology help parents be “in the car” when they aren’t in the car?

Using Technology to Improve Driving Habits

Dr. Yang and her team have three ongoing funded projects, two funded by National Institutes of Health and one funded by the CDC, focusing on high-risk, 16- to 17-year-old teen drivers who have a restricted driver license (starting to drive unsupervised) and received a traffic citation.

Existing studies show that motor vehicle collision risk is particularly high during the first six months of driving without supervision. Teen drivers who have committed a traffic violation are at even greater risk.

“Research shows that the parent role in teen driving safety is critical, so when we are looking at how to add technology into the mix, it is not to replace the parent, but to empower them,” Dr. Yang says. “Our projects use the technology to engage parents of the teens in the ways to strengthen their child’s motivation to drive more safely.”

One of those technologies is a driving tracker.

Driving trackers can do more than save you money on car insurance. They can begin an important dialogue between parents and teen drivers. Dr. Yang and her team are using these devices in their ongoing studies to see how gathering driving data that are shared with teens and parents can increase parents’ involvement in their teen’s safe driving behaviors.

In Franklin County, Ohio, home to Nationwide Children’s, teens who have a traffic violation are required to appear in court with their parents. It’s here that they are introduced to Project DRIVE.

“When young drivers receive a traffic citation and are required to show up in court, this provides a very teachable moment, and an opportunity for them to join our program,” she says.

Her team teaches parents ways to increase their child’s motivation to drive more safely. The projects use an in-vehicle device that records teen driving behavior and sends summary reports to the teen and parent. With this tool, parents have objective data to use in conversations with their teens about their driving and safe driving behaviors.

“We tell parents, ‘Be sure to include praise in your feedback and conversations with your teen drivers’,” says Dr. Yang. “Teens often say they only hear criticism or negative feedback on their driving. Having this report can highlight times that the teen did well — providing an opportunity for praise.”

So far, the feedback from parents and teens is positive, says Dr. Yang. “Parents are happy to have the support and training that we provide. The teens are happy to have proof of when they do a good job.”

Jingzhen (Ginger) Yang, PhD, MPH
Jingzhen (Ginger) Yang, PhD, MPH
Motao (Matt) Zhu, MD, MS, PhD
Motao (Matt) Zhu, MD, MS, PhD
Dennis Durbin, MD, MSCE
Dennis Durbin, MD, MSCE

Technology and Distracted Driving

Keeping your hands off your phone and on the wheel is a critical component of safe driving for everyone — especially teens. Using built-in or third-party apps that limit cellphone use during driving is growing in popularity. But do these apps really work? Are people using them?

Motao (Matt) Zhu, MD, MS, PhD, is a principal investigator in CIRP who wants to find out.

He specializes in understanding how cellphone use influences teen driving behaviors — and how policy is the translational mechanism to change teen driving outcomes.

“Safe driving, especially for teenagers, is an important issue, and one where research can really make a difference,” he says. “Research and policy in support of safe driving can save lives.”

His most recent R01 grant from the NIH supports a randomized clinical trial to determine the effects of a cellphone app and a driving mode intervention in reducing cellphone use and high-risk driving events in drivers aged 18 to 24 years.

The study will follow 1200 young drivers using commercial apps or driving mode (both Apple and Android versions) to limit hands-on cellphone usage while driving. The active placebo group will have an app that isn’t blocking anything but is tracking usage and driving.

“While teens who are driving on a learner’s permit or in the restricted driving phase have less cellphone usage, teens and young adults ages 18 to 24 with full licenses have the highest of cellphone usage in all age groups,” says Dr. Zhu. “These are less experienced drivers, and distracted driving can be devastating.”

Earlier research has shown that reducing the amount of time or incidences where drivers are touching their phone can reduce crashes.

So, is hands-free cellphone use the answer? Not completely.

“Using hands free options while in the car is far safer than being hands on with your cellphone while driving,” Dr. Zhu says. “But even hands free sometimes can be a distraction. In driving simulations and epidemiological studies, researchers still found risk associated with hands-free cellphone usage. In naturalistic driving studies where cameras were mounted on the car, manual and visual distractions were associated with safety-critical events.”

Notably, Dr. Zhu points out, talking hands free, such as making or taking a call through the Bluetooth system, was not associated with safety-critical events in the naturalistic driving study.

Driving Simulation Studies

Dr. Yang’s third NIH-funded project is supported by a $3 million R01 grant focused on fitness to drive after concussion among young drivers assessed using a high-fidelity driving simulator.

Whether from sports, a car crash or other traumatic event, the CDC estimates 1.7 million to 3.8 million children 18 years or younger suffer from concussion, a type of traumatic brain injury (TBI), each year.

For Dr. Yang, who started her research career studying sports and concussions, learning how concussion recovery affects driving safety utilizes the experience and insights she’s gained over her career.

“We have studies on how concussion impacts athletics and school ability, but none on how concussion impacts their driving ability throughout recovery,” she says. “Often teens recovering from concussion have no restriction on driving. We want to know if that is safe — and we suspect that it isn’t.”

The study, which is a collaboration with The Ohio State University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, aims to assess reaction time, decision making and risk taking under different levels of cognitive load over the course of recovery. Dr. Yang is leading an NIH-funded study to compare teen driving over time — tracking teens during their recovery from concussion and comparing them with matched controls.

“Our study will fill critical gaps by providing evidence on how acutely post-injury neurocognitive function — for example, delayed reaction time — may impact driving ability, identifying therapeutic targets to help teens return to drive after mTBI,” said Despina Stavrinos, PhD, principal investigator of the study from the University of Alabama, in a press release about the grant.

Using state-of-the-art driving simulation facilities at University of Alabama at Birmingham and The Ohio State University in this collaborative project will enable the researchers to have a large, diverse group of participants, they say.

The Future of Safe Driving Research

While many might have thought that driving flying cars would be on the scene in 2021, others suspected that automated driving would be prevalent by now.

Though we’re still waiting for that fully self-driven auto, today’s cars do have automated options that influence the skills needed to be a safe driver. For example, some cars are programmed to parallel park by themselves or to stay a set distance away from the car in front of them, accelerating and braking as needed, without cognitive input from the driver. As those automated features grow more prevalent, how does that change the skills needed to drive a car? How does driver’s education adapt to meet the new needs of drivers? And are there new skills that drivers will be required to learn as a result of automation?

“These types of questions fascinate me,” says Dr. Durbin. “When I shifted from research into administration, the role of automation on teen driving safety was one we were just starting to consider. Now, I think it is one of the biggest areas of driving research left to explore.”


This article appears in the 2021 Fall/Winter print issue. Download the full issue.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/leadcause.html.
    Accessed July 2021.
  2. Li L, Hu G, Schwebel DC, Zhu M. Analysis of US teens driving after using marijuana, 2017. JAMA
    Network Open. 2020;3(12):e2030473

Image credits: Nationwide Children’s Hospital

About the author

Abbie (Roth) Miller, MWC, is a passionate communicator of science. As the manager, medical and science content, at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, she shares stories about innovative research and discovery with audiences ranging from parents to preeminent researchers and leaders. Before coming to Nationwide Children’s, Abbie used her communication skills to engage audiences with a wide variety of science topics. She is a Medical Writer Certified®, credentialed by the American Medical Writers Association.