New drivers, especially those ages 15 to 20 years, have a substantially higher risk of motor vehicle accidents than experienced, older drivers. A study published in October 2023 issue of Pediatrics employed a virtual driving assessment (VDA) tool to identify newly licensed teens who were at highest risk for being involved in a car accident. The study investigators, based at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), gathered data from over 16,000 new drivers in Ohio who completed the VDA tool, and tracked their car accident rate over the following three years.
While only 5% of drivers are the in the 15-20 year age range, this group accounts for up to 12% of vehicular crashes and over 8% of fatal accidents annually. The majority of accidents occur in the first few months after receiving a license, and the incidence declines in the months and years to follow. Most states do not have standardized requirements for road training prior to obtaining a driver’s license. And while many states have specific restrictions on newly licensed teen drivers regarding limitations such as driving only in daylight and not driving other teen passengers, these rules are often loosely followed.
The bulk of accidents in the months following licensure are related to driver error, not to reckless or purposeful risky behavior. These errors are typically related to inadequate skills, such as poor scanning, decision errors and loss of control. Experience and time behind the wheel lead to significant reduction in these errors. This decrease in accident frequency underscores the importance of minimizing the error rate in the early months of a driver’s experience. While written and road tests will provide a baseline safety measure for becoming licensed, the fact that such a high percentage of crashes occur in those early months lead to creation of an additional tool to assess new drivers’ risk profiles.
The VDA was created by researchers at CHOP, along with Diagnostic Driving, Inc. and the Ohio Department of Public Safety and the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The virtual tool creates crash scenarios and a range of simulated driving skills. Initially the tool was designed to assess likelihood of a new driver’s ability to pass the road test for licensure.
The virtual skill tool is a 15-minute self-directed online test comprised of a driving route that incorporates “common serious crash scenarios such as rear-end events, intersections, curved roads, merges, and hazard zones. These routes also have varied settings (urban and suburban), physical road features, and other road potential hazards (eg, crosswalks, merges, construction zones, vehicles, and pedestrians).” It includes 69 variables that assess operational and tactical driving skills, including “aberrant or hazardous behaviors like simulated crashes and traffic light violations, as well as performance in several known domains of driving.”
The VDA expanded use to help new drivers and families better hone driving skills before getting on the road. It is now found to identify higher risk drivers in their early months of licensure, in efforts to minimize the well-known spike in crashes in the first months of licensed driving.
The October study looked at driving records between July 2017 and March 2020, ending the study period just before the Covid-19 pandemic began. Of the newly licensed drivers, 13% sustained a crash and 1.5% had two or more crashes. Ninety percent of crashes took place between 17 and 600 days after obtaining a license. Scores on VDA skills were graded as lowest risk (”No Issues Driving”) to highest risk (”Major Issues with Dangerous Behavior”) and correlated to crash incidence. Not surprisingly, those with “No Issues Driving” had a 10% lower than average risk of crashing, and those with “Major Issues with Dangerous Behavior” had a 11% higher than average risk of a crash. The age, sex and sociodemographic descriptors of the newly licensed drivers had no impact on the risk of crashes.
The study authors conclude that this virtual tool is a strong metric that can better assess higher risk new drivers. Perhaps this can be used more widely, and poor performers on the VDA can be given more time to hone skills, and perhaps delay full licensure until skill and safety level are at the “No Issues Driving.” This will very likely lead to significant reduction of road crashes on a national level.