Has COVID-19 impacted teen driver safety in NC?
A recent C-19 Mobility and Health Technical Brief about young driver safety during the COVID-19 (C19) pandemic shared several interesting findings:
- The closure of schools and the statewide stay-at-home order clearly had a substantial effect on young drivers in North Carolina.
- New permits and licenses dropped off sharply beginning March 2020.
- Crashes also decreased, likely reflecting fewer trips by young drivers since schools and other activities were cancelled.
- Provisional license applications rebounded quickly when North Carolina waived the road test requirement. The effect of this action on crashes is not yet known.
We caught up with Natalie O’Brien, the HSRC researcher leading this project, to learn a little more about what her team is investigating.
Q: Were you surprised by your initial findings of this project, that fewer young people were getting licensed between March and July 2020 and that crashes decreased during that same period?
A: No, it makes sense that the data would show that fewer young drivers were on the road and getting licensed to drive. When the pandemic began, every aspect of “normal life” was disrupted. Families weren’t leaving home. Students weren’t driving to school and DMVs were closed for a while. And with fewer teens driving, we would hope to see a decrease in the number of teens involved in crashes.
Q: You recently conducted surveys and focus groups with NC parents to gauge impacts of C19 on supervised driving. What did you learn?
A: We found that practice driving decreased sharply after the state-wide shutdown. Parents reported that before the shutdown teens practiced driving an average of 3.5 days per week compared to 1 day a week after the shutdown. The main reason they were getting less practice is because there was “nowhere to go.” We know from prior research that most practice driving takes place on routine trips, so it makes sense that teens would be driving less due to schools being closed and lots of activities being cancelled.
Q. Why is length of time teen drivers have to practice driving so important to their safety?
A: The adage “practice makes better” is true, especially for our youngest drivers on the road. North Carolina’s graduated driver licensing system requires young drivers to have 12 months of driving practice before they can progress from a learner’s permit to a limited driver’s license. There’s a reason for that, and it’s concerning to us, as researchers, that proposals to significantly reduce licensing requirements – including decreasing the length of the learner’s permit – are currently under consideration in several states, including North Carolina. Based on prior research, we know that six months is not nearly enough time for beginning teenage drivers to develop a sound understanding of the many things they need to know to safely drive on their own. Decreasing the length of the permit alone could dramatically increase the crash rate of young drivers. Couple this with our current findings that teens have even fewer opportunities to practice than they did prior to C19, and we would have even more unqualified young drivers on the road. What could be seen as a “small change” to a timeline to some, could translate to a huge increase in serious injury and fatal crashes involving young drivers.
Q: Your team is now looking into the effects of eliminating the teen driver road test in NC due to COVID. Do you have any preliminary findings?
A: While it is too early to tell what the data says, I can tell you that research has shown us time and time again that maintaining driving practice opportunities for our youngest drivers helps prevent teen crashes and the injuries and fatalities that are a result of those crashes. We’re a year into this public health crisis, and more young drivers are getting back on the road and behind the wheel without the practice research has shown us they need. As researchers, we are concerned that efforts to make driver licensing easier may have the unintentional consequence of greater risk of injury or death for teen drivers, their passengers, and anyone else involved in a crash. Many of my colleagues at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center have worked tirelessly to help North Carolina and other states across the country to design a young driver licensing system that ensures beginners are better prepared to drive safely. The pandemic hasn’t changed the facts we’ve learned about teen driver safety through the decades, and it’s imperative not to let current issues – even those as serious and all-encompassing as C19 – undo the progress we’ve made to improve teen driver safety.