How Gender Affects the Behavior of Teen Drivers

"Riding in Cars With Boys," if you're a teen girl, is probably an unwise idea.

There’s a poignant Subaru commercial from a few years ago in which a dad appears to be cautioning his 5-year-old daughter as she buckles into the driver’s seat and prepares to hit the road. In the last few moments the camera reveals that—outside of her father’s eyes, of course—the girl is a fully licensed teenager.

Parents might be justified in wringing their hands over their high-schoolers’ driving habits, though. A car accident is the most likely reason a teen won’t make it to adulthood. And teens are far more likely than adults to crash their cars while distracted.


In a study in the January issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that, compared with the risk of crashing when not performing these tasks, novice teen drivers were eight times more likely to crash or have a near-miss when dialing a phone; seven times more likely to crash when reaching for a phone or another object; almost four times more likely when texting; and three times more likely when eating.

But one of the most distracting things, according to some studies, is just having another teen in the car.

“In the presence of peers, teens will overvalue the short-term rewards of their decisions rather than the long-term consequences,” Dennis Durbin, scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said in a conference on distracted driving in Washington yesterday.

Looking at the reasons behind teen car crashes, surprising differences emerge between the behaviors of male and female drivers. During his presentation, Durbin brought up a fascinating 2012 study on distraction and risk-taking among teen boys and girls.

For the study, which was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia examined 5,470 crashes involving drivers aged 16 to 18 that took place between July 2005 and December 2007. They relied on quantitative and qualitative data from the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey, and they limited their observations only to drivers who either drove alone or with a passenger between the ages of 14 and 20.

They focused on five types of actions that might have caused the collisions:

Inattention — daydreaming or otherwise focusing on internal thoughts

“Interior non-driving activity” — something inside the car interfered with attention, like looking at the other passengers, eating or drinking, reaching for objects, dialing the phone, or texting

Exterior factor — looking at something in traffic or something outside the vehicle

Aggressive acts — speeding, tailgating, or weaving

Illegal maneuvers — not obeying traffic laws, making illegal U-turns, etc...

The results say a lot about how the gender dynamics between teens influence risk-taking:

Journal of Adolescent Health/Olga Khazan

For the boys, the most common behavior precipitating a crash was aggressive driving. The boys were three times more likely to drive recklessly when there was a girl in the car than when they were driving alone, and slightly more likely than with a boy in the car.

They were also far more likely to turn their attention to something inside the car when the passenger was female, but, oddly, they were less likely to be distracted by something inside the car in the presence of another boy than when they were by themselves. Driving with a male peer did, however, increase the chance that they would do something illegal, more so than driving either alone or with a girl.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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