Risk-prone drivers may show tendencies in eighth grade

October 18, 1995
Contact: Bernie DeGroat bernied@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—Although most teen-agers receive their driver’s license when they turn 16, it may be possible to predict which young drivers are more likely to have a crash or traffic offense” three years before they get behind the wheel, according to University of Michigan researchers.

In their study of nearly 800 Michigan first-year drivers, Jean Shope, Patricia Waller and Sylvia Lang of the U-M Transportation Research Institute say that factors while in the eighth grade, such as living situation and parental attitude toward teen drinking (for boys) and friends’ influence regarding alcohol (for girls), can predict whether a new driver is likely to be involved in a car crash or commit a traffic offense of any kind (not necessarily alcohol-related).

“Our study establishes that important predictors of adolescent high-risk driving behavior can be determined as early as the eighth grade,” Shope says. “The findings have significant implications for the design of prevention programs that must be implemented before young people begin driving.”

While the study found that 22 percent of young men are involved in crashes during their first year of driving, the rates vary according to the factors identified. Those who lived with both parents in the eighth grade and whose parents objected to teen drinking are least likely to have crashes (16.5 percent probability rate), while those who did not live with both parents and whose parents were neutral on alcohol use by eighth-graders have a much higher crash rate—54 percent.

Likewise, in the case of traffic offenses, Shope says the likelihood for first-year male drivers who lived with both parents in the eighth grade and whose parents disapproved of drinking by teens is 23 percent—less than half the rate (50 percent) for those who did not live with both parents and whose parents were neutral on eighth- graders’ drinking. Overall, 25 percent of young men committed a driving offense during their first year on the road.

“For the most part, parents who communicated negative attitudes about young people’s drinking and, presumably, other unacceptable behaviors, had sons who were less likely to have a crash or offense,” Shope says. “Sons who lived with both parents probably benefited from hearing more about those negative attitudes and, presumably, higher behavioral expectations in general, and may have experienced less disruption in their young lives.”

Compared to male teens, the likelihood of crashes for young women is influenced more by friends’ attitudes on drinking than by parental views or living situation, Shope says.

The study found that the predicted probability of a crash for first-year female drivers is 32 percent for those whose friends are heavily involved with alcohol, 20 percent for those whose friends have average involvement, and only 13.5 percent for those with friends not involved at all with alcohol. In all, the crash rate for young women is 20 percent during their first year of driving.

“It is interesting and typical that in eighth grade, the girls who might later be regarded as more precocious or likely to take risks have advanced further than the boys along the adolescent developmental progression, from being more strongly influenced by parents to being more strongly influenced by friends,” Shope says.

She adds that her findings reinforce the power of communicating to young people parental attitudes regarding acceptable behavior and reiterate the need for parental involvement in adolescent safe-driving programs.

Shope’s study was presented this week at a meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine in Chicago.