Passing the state driver’s licensing test does not always mean new drivers have the critical skills they need to drive safely. In fact, for all new drivers, regardless of their age, crash risk is highest immediately following licensure, and driver errors due to inexperience and lack of skill cause the majority of these crashes. For teens in the US this is particularly critical: Motor vehicle crashes remain the number one cause of death.
Researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s (CHOP) Center for Injury Research and Prevention and the University of Pennsylvania have developed and validated the Simulated Driving Assessment (SDA), offering for the first time a safe way to assess novice teen drivers’ skills in high-risk driving scenarios that commonly lead to crashes. The study, published in the journal Injury Prevention, followed more than a decade of foundational research regarding young driver crashes and over five years of research to create and validate a simulator-based driver assessment that can differentiate between skilled and non-skilled drivers.
During the 35-minute SDA, which incorporates 22 variations of the most common ways teen drivers crash, nearly 43 percent of newly licensed teens (within three months of licensure) had a simulated crash at least once. For licensed, experienced adult drivers, that percentage was 29 percent. For every additional error committed during the SDA, the risk for crashing or running off the road increased by 8 percent. Although the novice teen drivers were adept at basic driving skills (i.e., using turn signals), the more advanced skills (i.e., braking in hazardous situations, anticipating and responding to hazards) proved challenging.
“When we put new drivers on the road without ensuring that they have the necessary skills to drive safely, why are we surprised when they crash? We shouldn’t be,” says Flaura K. Winston, MD, PhD, scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) at CHOP and principal investigator for the SDA line of research. “We’re providing the science behind the answer to why teens – and some adults – don’t drive well. Some haven’t developed the skills they need to navigate complex driving situations and are crashing due to error. It’s no longer a mystery – we know where and how teens crash. Now we are able to ‘diagnose driving’ in order to ensure that we are training and putting skilled drivers on the road.” Dr. Winston also notes that more than half of the novice teen drivers in the study did not have a simulated crash, showing they do have the needed skills to drive safely. “We want to ensure that all teens have that ability,” she says.
Previous studies of newly licensed teenage drivers indicate that they exit the learner period with significant skill deficits, leading to a much higher risk of crashing compared with more experienced drivers. The most common types of crashes involve left turns, rear-end events, and running off the road. Catherine McDonald, PhD, RN, lead author of the study and a teen driver safety researcher at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) School of Nursing and CIRP, sees an important role for the SDA while teens are still in the learner period and for those who are licensed but may have crash risks related to their skills or behaviors.
“What our research tells us is that a validated simulated driving test could be used to assess the driving skills needed to avoid crashes. If we can identify driving skill deficits in a safe, simulated environment, then we can tell families and driving instructors what to focus on during supervised practice drives or how to help those with citations or crashes who are already licensed,” says Dr. McDonald. “It is worrisome that the participants in our study were all licensed drivers yet many had inadequate driving skills, even without the deterioration in performance that can occur with common distractions like texting and peer passengers. Before teens are allowed to drive on the roads by themselves, we need to ensure that they have the skills that can prevent them from crashing. Additionally, when teens crash, we need to diagnose what went wrong and remediate it.”
The SDA is a package of software products that runs on commercially available driving simulators. As a standard protocol to evaluate teen driver performance, the SDA has the potential to screen and assess for licensure readiness and could be used to guide targeted skill training. Future CHOP studies will further explore the SDA’s use in evaluating risky driving behaviors in teens.
To see critical errors that result in the most common serious crashes, watch the videos:
- inadequate braking in a hazardous situation
- following another vehicle too closely
- lack of scanning at a left turn
For more information about CHOP’s Simulated Driving Assessment (SDA), visit teendriversource.org. Parents and driving instructors can also find research-based resources to help make their practice drives more effective and to help teens develop crucial skills that prevent crashes on the site.
Reprinted with permission of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s (CHOP)