Virtual driving assessment predicts risk of crashing for newly licensed teen drivers

New research from Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center measures data from driving assessment tools to identify which skill deficits put young new drivers at higher risk for crashes.

New research finds that driving skills measured at the time of licensure on a virtual driving assessment (VDA), which exposes drivers to common serious crash scenarios, helps predict crash risk in newly licensed teen drivers.

Published in the journal Pediatrics, and conducted by the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) with colleagues at Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and the University of Michigan, the study brings the research community one step closer to identifying which skill deficits put young new drivers at higher risk for crashes. With this cutting-edge information, more personalized interventions can be developed to improve the driving skills that prevent crashes.

A virtual dashboard showing driving hazards ahead.
Image: iStock/chombosan

While drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 only make up about 5% of all drivers on the road, they are involved in approximately 12% of all vehicle crashes and 8.5% of fatal crashes. The time of greatest crash risk is in the months right after these young drivers receive their license, largely due to deficits in driving skills.

However, many of these newly licensed drivers do avoid crashes. The challenge for policymakers, clinicians, and families has been identifying which drivers are at increased risk of crashing during the learning phase before they drive on their own. Early identification of at-risk drivers offers the opportunity to intervene with training and other resources known to help prevent crashes, making the roads safer for everyone.

The researchers examined the ability of the VDA, delivered at the time of the licensing road test, to predict crash risk in the first year after obtaining licensure in the state of Ohio. Using a unique study design, the results of the VDA were linked to police-reported crash records for the first year after obtaining a license.

“Our previous research showed that performance on the VDA predicted actual on-road driving performance, as measured by failure on the licensing road test. This new study went further to determine whether VDA performance could identify unsafe driving performance predictive of future crash risk,” says lead study author Elizabeth Walshe, a cognitive neuroscientist and clinical researcher who directs the Neuroscience of Driving team at CIRP. “We found that drivers categorized by their performance as having major issues with dangerous behavior were at higher risk of crashing than average new drivers,” says Walshe, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC).

“These findings are incredibly important because they provide us with quantitative evidence that we can approach young driver safety in a new way—by predicting crash risk and aiming resources to those who need them most,” says Flaura Winston, co-scientific director of CIRP at CHOP, co-author of the study, and an APPC distinguished research fellow. “By providing this information before licensure, we can direct resources to those most at risk, and potentially prevent crashes from occurring when these teens first drive on their own.”

Read more at Annenberg Public Policy Center.