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Risking It All: the perils of teenage driving with peers

Teenagers crave peer approval. But did you know that teen drivers have been proven to take more risks when they think their passenger approves of reckless driving?

A new study published in the American Health Psychology journal has shown that teen drivers are strongly influenced by their teen passengers’ attitudes towards driving, especially those who condone risky behaviour.

“In the driving context, the perception that one’s friends drive in a risky manner is associated with higher rates of speeding and other risky driving,” writes the study’s lead author Bruce G. Simons-Morton, Ed.D. M.P.H.

“Accordingly, behaviours such as risky driving may be more likely to occur when perceived as preferred or expected by important others.”

We’ve known for a while that teenagers driving with peers have a significantly increased chance of car accident death, especially among males.

Victoria now limits P-plate drivers to carrying no more than one peer passenger aged 16-22. Prior to this, however, carrying more than one passenger increased first-year Provisional drivers’ fatal crash risk four times the level of driving alone or with only one passenger.  More than one-quarter of these drivers involved in fatal crashes were carrying multiple passengers at the time of crash.  This is significant, as driving with passengers represents only 9% of young Victorians’ total on-road driving time.

Red Light Fever

L and P plates

The new American study shows how the dynamics play out during the course of a car ride, influencing the teen driver’s own willingness to take risks, particularly around red lights.

So what happened in the drive simulators?

A group of 66 male teens with new driving licenses were randomly assigned to drive with either a risk-accepting or risk-averse peer passenger (actually a young researcher) in a driving simulator.

In the risk-accepting scenario, the researcher arrived late saying: “Sorry I was a little late getting here. Normally I drive way faster, but I hit like every red light.” In the risk-averse scenario, the researcher said: “Sorry I was a little late getting here. I tend to drive slowly, plus I hit every yellow light.”

The teen was then told that he had been randomly selected to be the driver for the experiment, but the researcher was going to try out the simulator first, just for fun. In the risk-accepting scenario, the researcher drove aggressively without wearing a seat belt; and in the risk-averse scenario, he put on a seat belt and drove as safely as possible.

The teens then completed both a solo trip in the simulator, and a trip with the researcher as passenger. ‘Risky behaviour’ was gauged by behaviour at red lights – whether the driver stopped, and how long he waited there.

Roadside Shrine
Roadside shrine

Compared to their solo drives, the teen participants took a lot more risks (running more red lights) when they had a passenger – any passenger – with them. But they were even more reckless when driving with the risk-accepting passenger rather than the risk-averse one.

And the really scary thing is that no researcher in this study put any pressure on the teen participants to drive in any specific way – there was no egging on, daring, competitiveness or provocation as you might expect when teenage friends are gathered in the same car.

Which led the researchers to think their findings might actually underestimate the true influence of peers on teenage driving, when out on the open road, perhaps at night, after drinking or under sustained pressure to hit the accelerator.

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