Tips for Teens Learning to Drive in North Carolina

O Teen Girl Driver

Teens and cars can make a dangerous combination. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among young people ages 15-19, accounting for 37 percent of all deaths in this age group, according to Safe Roads 4 Teens, a national coalition advocating safer driving for teenagers.

The coalition also reports that 1,978 young drivers ages 15-20 were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. in 2011. Crashes involving young drivers also claimed the lives of nearly 2,780 other people that year, including:

– 1,191 passengers riding with young drivers.
– 1,120 people in other vehicles.
– 469 pedestrians, bicyclists and other nonoccupants.

Of these 2,780 deaths, 186 occurred in North Carolina.

Statistics show that new teen drivers are significantly more likely to crash than more experienced teen drivers or adult drivers, including the elderly.

“Beginning teenage drivers are more likely to have a crash than any other drivers on the road,” says Dr. Rob Foss, director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the Highway Safety Research Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. “It’s important for them to have as much practice time behind the wheel in all kinds of conditions,” he says. “They should gradually work up to driving in heavy traffic and in bad weather, once they have shown some mastery of driving in less challenging conditions.”

Concerns about the safety of teen drivers are well founded.

– Teen drivers ages 16-19 have a fatality rate four times the rate of drivers ages 25-69.
– 16-year-old drivers’ crash rate is three times higher than 17-year-old drivers’ crash rate.
– 17-year-old drivers’ crash rate is five times higher than 18-year-old drivers’ crash rate.
– 18-year-old drivers’ crash rate is two times higher than 85-year-old drivers’ crash rate.

Young Adults Take More Risks

Risk-taking behaviors characteristic of young adults, whose nervous systems are not fully developed, also contribute to safety issues among teen drivers. According to studies by the Highway Safety Research Center and other organizations, three factors — inexperience, impulsivity and inadequate exposure to all types of driving conditions — contribute most to the occurrence of accidents.

“Driving is a very complex and sophisticated activity,” Foss says. “I think the best analogy to driving is to compare it with continuous contact sports, such as soccer, hockey or basketball. Just as it takes hundreds of hours to become skilled at certain sports, it takes lots and lots of practice to become a good driver. On the field, if you make a mistake, there are no really serious consequences. That’s not true on the road behind the wheel of a car.”

Although Highway Safety Research Center researchers believe additional analysis is needed to determine how much driving experience is truly “enough,” studies indicate that individuals continue to improve in their driving for at least two years after they begin. Crash rates among teens are very high in the first months of driving, then decline sharply and continue to steadily decline over the next one to two years.

One study cited by the Highway Safety Research Center found a statistically reliable decrease in crash rates among teens who spent an average of about 110 hours of supervised driving practice before obtaining a license.

“For experienced drivers, driving is at an almost a subconscious level,” says Danny Bolick, who teaches teen drivers at Heritage High School for Jordan Driving School in Raleigh, which contracts with Wake County Public School System to provide driver education classes. “Adult drivers have learned when a safe lane change is possible without even thinking about it,” he says. “Teenagers can’t do that. They still need a lot of practice.”

Teens often drive more frequently at night and with multiple passengers, which can substantially increase the likelihood of a crash, since the risk of a serious or fatal crash increases sharply in the evening hours. And though the risk continues to rise after midnight, 80 percent of nighttime crashes among 16- and 17- year-old drivers nationwide occur between the hours of 9 p.m. and midnight.

Drinking alcohol, speeding and other risky behaviors compound the problem. According to data from Safe Roads 4 Teens, in 2011:

– 24 percent of young drivers involved in fatal crashes were drinking.
– 32 percent of young drivers who were killed in crashes had a blood alcohol content of .01 or higher and 26 percent had a BAC of .08 or higher.
– 19.3 percent of young drivers involved in a fatal crash had previously been convicted of speeding.

Impulsivity + Distractibility = Unsafe Driving

As their cognitive, social, emotional and biological development continues, young drivers — especially 16-year-olds — often engage in impulsive behaviors that can contribute to unsafe driving habits. A lack of driving experience also causes young drivers to have difficulty consistently recognizing risky conditions.

The presence of other teens in the car with a young driver compounds an adolescent’s tendency to engage in impulsive behaviors. Distractibility, particularly due to the use of cellphones or smartphones in a car, is also a risk factor for teen drivers.

Graduated Licensing Works

Despite some alarming statistics, parents in North Carolina and many other states have the opportunity to teach their children safe driving habits through a graduated licensing system (see sidebar). Driver education programs such as Jordan Driving School also produce parent/student manuals and videos that promote tips to help teens become safer drivers.

“It takes a lot of hours to become a safe driver,” Foss says. “If parents take advantage of that full year of supervised driving and teach their children what they know about what it means to be a safe driver, they can really help their kids. Even parents who are not the best drivers themselves have learned through experience how to be able to avoid a crash, and if they can teach them what they know, that is a big help for everyone.”

Katherine Kopp is a freelance writer in Chapel Hill. She and her husband required their three daughters to learn to drive a stick shift car when they were learning to drive, in case they were ever in an emergency situation and this was the only type of vehicle available.

N.C. Graduated Driver Licensing

The N.C. Graduated Driver Licensing system for beginning drivers was implemented on Dec. 1, 1997, becoming the second such system in the U.S.

During the first six months, a Level One Limited Learner Permit authorizes driving between the hours of 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. while accompanied by a supervising driver. Six months from Level One Limited Learner Permit issuance, driving anytime with a supervising driver is allowed.

Once a driver has a Level Two Limited Learner Permit, driving without supervision is allowed from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m. and at any time when driving directly to or from work or any volunteer fire, rescue or emergency medical service, if the permit holder is a member. When driving without a supervisor, no more than one passenger under 21 years of age is allowed in the vehicle. This limit does not apply to passengers who are members of the license holder’s immediate family or who live in the same household as the driver.

However, if a family member younger than 21 years of age is a passenger in the vehicle, no other passengers under 21 are permitted.

In order to obtain a Level Three Full Provisional License, the driver must have held a Level Two Limited Learner Permit for at least six months and have no convictions of moving violations or seat belt infractions within the preceding six months, or be age 18 or older.

The Highway Safety Research Center and other organizations that advocate for driver safety recommend the following two provisions to further enhance the development of safe driving practices for teen drivers:

– Require that a teen be age 16 for older for entry into the learner’s permit stage.
– Extend all restrictions on teen drivers through age 17.

Find practice tests and a complete list of the requirements for licensing at You can also find practice tests at

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