The road to young safety

Joint OECD/ECMT Transport Research Centre

©David Rooney for OECD Observer

Driving a car is a common, everyday activity for adults of all ages. Yet, every year in OECD countries, road crashes kill about 25,000 young people between the ages of 15-24. Can anything be done to stop this waste?

A recent road accident report in a local newspaper in the French region of Normandy has a sad but all too familiar ring about it. Three young men aged 16, 18 and 20 are killed in a car accident involving another car. The driver of their own car had been going at 147 km per hour (over 90 mph) in a zone where the speed limit was 70. The victims in the other car were an elderly couple; both died from their injuries. The driver alone survived the crash. He was 20, and had just got his driving license a few months earlier.

Far from being of mere local interest, this true story could be echoed in any newspaper in the OECD, because it is an issue which affects us all.

Traffic crashes are the largest single cause of death among people aged 15-24 in the OECD area, outweighing all diseases put together (see graph). Although the number of traffic fatalities has fallen in many countries, the proportion of deaths among young people has remained steady. In fact, young people account for about 27% of driver deaths, although they represent only about 10% of the population. In per capita terms, drivers under 25 are more than twice as likely to be killed in a car crash as those aged 25-64. At least 8,500 young drivers of passenger vehicles were killed in crashes across the OECD in 2004.

Youth road accidents involve other people too; indeed, like the older couple above, research in the Netherlands and the US shows that for every 10 young drivers killed, some 13 others typically die in the same crashes.

Road accidents are a health issue, though the economic cost is also enormous. In the US alone, the toll of crashes among 15 to 20-year-olds in 2002 was estimated at $40.8 billion. Some estimates put the total economic cost from all deaths and injuries at a remarkable 2-4% of GDP in OECD countries, through loss of human capital and productive capacity, rehabilitation and family loss, and property damage.

No wonder a 2003 UN General Assembly Resolution described the impact of road crashes on human health as unacceptable. The European Conference of Ministers of Transport (ECMT) took early action by establishing a target of a 50% reduction in traffic-related deaths in the period 2000-2012. Reducing young driver risk is key to that goal.

Achieving it demands an understanding of why young people have so many crashes in the first place. Some explanations are straightforward enough. The first is inexperience; crash risk is typically high in the period immediately after getting a driving license.

However, youth itself is a factor insofar as the younger the new license holder, the higher the crash risk too.

Click to enlarge
Source: OECD/ECMT Transport Research Centre

Gender is also a major aspect of the problem. Young men are up to three times more likely to be involved in a traffic crash than young women. Furthermore, recent data for the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK have shown that young men’s relative fatal crash risk, compared to that of older drivers, increased by 50% or more in the period 1994-2003, while the same was not true for young women.

There is a range of other common patterns to watch for: young people are over-represented in crashes involving speed, those that occur at night, especially on weekends, when driving with young passengers, and when not wearing seat belts. They also have more alcohol and drug-related crashes.

Can these devastating and wasteful accidents be avoided? For policymakers, it is a challenge full of dilemmas. After all, young drivers must gain experience which in turn exposes them, and others, to risk. At the same time, driving gives young people mobility and access to social, economic and educational opportunities.

Identifying objectives and feasibility is an important step. The goal should be to continue to reduce overall fatalities while cutting the gap in risk between younger and older drivers. This should not mean penalising mobility, but will require fresh thinking by a range of players in government, the health and education systems, among driving instructors, the insurance industry, and also parents and the individuals concerned.

Curiously enough, few road safety measures are ever met with public enthusiasm, despite the thousands of lives they can save. Strong political leadership can change this, as can clear communications about the risks. There are examples of good practice in OECD and ECMT countries. A few years ago, the French president, for instance, made cutting road deaths a priority. His call led to more effective enforcement and a sharp reduction in road fatalities. According to data from IRTAD*, France’s fatality rate dropped from around sixth highest in the OECD area in 2000 to 12th in 2004, or from 14 road deaths per 100,000 population to a more average 9. This was accompanied by a 35% drop in the number of 18 to 24-year-old drivers killed in that age group. Russia’s president has also been proactive in recognising the need to take action to bring down that country’s high fatality rate.

Source: OECD/ECMT Transport Research Centre

What kinds of measures might work? Young people must be better prepared for driving. Prior to licensing, more practice with an experienced driver in real driving situations is essential. Drivers often have very little such experience by the time they take standard national tests. Sweden understood this and, in 1993, dropped the minimum age for accompanied practice from 17.5 to 16 years, which resulted in an increase in the levels of pre-driving experience from about 50 to 120 hours. The effort reduced crashes by 40% in the two years after licensing.

Most training and testing methods have been found wanting when it comes to reducing post-licensing crash risk.

One reason is that training may emphasise technical competence in driving vehicles, rather than actual safety, for instance.

Even with good training, the first months of solo driving are fraught with risk. Some form of probationary period could also prove useful, with a mix of rewards and sanctions inciting better driving. Special points systems that have been successful in reinforcing road safety messages for all drivers could be tailored to young drivers.

Special policies on alcohol consumption are also needed. Compared to older drivers, young people’s accident risk increases much more with each alcoholic drink consumed. Drinking and driving has to be resisted for all ages, but evidence shows that, for younger drivers, those limits should never be more than 0.2 g/l. Such tight restrictions are in place in many parts of the world, such as Australia, Canada and the US, showing important reductions in crashes and fatalities. Limitations on driving at night or in groups of young passengers have also been shown to be effective, particularly in parts of Australia, Canada and the US, and in New Zealand.

Of course, such measures will only work if there is effective enforcement. However, it is difficult for the police to single out young drivers. Thus, general enforcement must be proactive and thorough, although it should focus on those typical situations, times and locations where young people are particularly at risk.

Another dilemma is that with youth comes zeal and confidence, even a sense of immortality, while an awareness of the sources of danger comes with experience. Nevertheless, road safety education should start as early as possible, especially as attitudes regarding safety are formed long before the driving years. Encouraging young people, including children, to see driving as a socially responsible activity may be effective, with parents and teachers involved in an educational campaign. And, as role models have an important influence, parents’ own road behaviour is also important.

Other potential countermeasures might include encouraging better technologies in car manufacture and design, smarter road construction and planning and so on. Car manufacturers could also play a role in helping to spread a road safety culture among their younger customers, affecting how they advertise speed, for instance. Also, good public transport policies aimed at young people can reduce reliance on car travel and so cut risk. Conversely, public officials could think twice about the true costs of, say, land-use planning or the location of activities of interest to young people, by factoring in likely road deaths from increased car use.

There is no silver bullet to resolving the tragic waste of lives on our roads as a result of young driver crashes, but that is no excuse for inaction. Saving lives is possible. It may cost money, but it saves money, too.

*International Road Traffic and Accident Database, OECD; see


OECD/ECMT(2006), Young Drivers: The Road to Safety, Transport Research Centre, Paris.


©OECD Observer No 257, October 2006

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