Research Warns to Think Twice About Teens Driving Pickups

What does transportation professor Chandra Bhat think is the most dangerous vehicle for a teenager? That answer, and more, make up his latest study.

Professor Chandra Bhat standing next to car with student in the driver seat

Transportation professor Chandra Bhat, and two of his civil engineering graduate students, completed a study on aggressive driving behavior and how it — along with other driving factors — relates to the severity of injuries sustained during a traffic accident. The subject is both professional and personal for Bhat: his daughter, Prerna, just received her driver's license.

Parents and teen drivers take note: a pickup could be the most dangerous vehicle for a 16-17 year old to drive, so much so that teens driving them are 100 percent more likely (or two times as likely) to be severely injured during a crash than a teen of the same age driving a car.

And, despite what many state policies mandate for young drivers going through state-run driver’s license programs, in terms of risks of being seriously injured in a crash, it is more dangerous for a driver—regardless of their age—to have one teenage passenger in their vehicle instead of two or three.

These findings are two of many from a new study by Cockrell School of Engineering transportation professor Chandra Bhat and civil engineering graduate students Rajesh Paleti and Naveen Eluru. The study was recently published in the number one traffic safety journal, Accident Analysis and Prevention, and comes out on the eve of national “Put the Brakes on Fatalities Day,” a campaign celebrated on Oct. 10 that’s aimed at reducing the number of traffic fatalities in the U.S.

Bhat’s study is the first of its kind to examine how aggressive driving behavior—as well as other driving characteristics like time of day and number of passengers in a vehicle—relates to the severity of injuries sustained during a traffic accident. Unlike previous studies in this field, the UT study gave considerable attention to small age variations in teenagers and found that the younger a driver is, the more likely he/she will drive aggressively and be involved in a serious crash.

The research adds to the ongoing public dialogue to find countermeasures for aggressive driving and improve driver safety, especially among teenagers for which the leading causes of death are vehicle crashes.

For Bhat, who conceived of, and directed, the study, finding these countermeasures is both professional and personal: his eldest daughter, Prerna, is 16 and just obtained her driver's license through the state’s Graduated Driver License (GDL) Program. The program started in January 2002 and requires teens to follow a two-phase process that gradually gives them more driving independence.

“I wanted to look at the GDL program to see if there’s something more I needed to do or know as a parent,” Bhat said. There was.

Unique research, unique findings

The study focused on traffic data collected by safety researchers at the scene of roughly 7,000 crashes in the U.S. between January 2005 and December 2007. The data collection was approved by the U.S. Congress to study the pre-crash events leading up to harmful crashes and the development of possible countermeasures.  Unlike previous studies on aggressive driving that focused on human behavior or used data collected from police reports or from self-reporting in hypothetical situations , the national traffic data collection program allowed researchers to be on the scene of an accident to speak with police, drivers, passengers and witnesses while the crash was fresh on their minds and no biases had formed.

The uniqueness of the data collected by the safety researchers gave Bhat and his team the opportunity to study driver behavior prior to each crash and the underlying driver-related factors that led up to the behavior.

The key findings of the research and their policy implications include:

  • Regardless of the driver’s age, traveling with a single young passenger poses the greatest risk of being in an accident where injuries sustained are severe. It is more dangerous than driving alone or driving with a group of young passengers, likely because with one passenger a driver feels an obligation to entertain or stay focused on their passenger. Because of this, Bhat and his colleagues suggest that GDL programs, many of which permit teen drivers to have a single young passenger, clamp down on this provision.
  • Drivers tend to be the most aggressive during morning rush hour, due to time pressures to reach their office or school as well as closer vehicle spacings. The study suggests that GDL programs may consider prohibiting driving to and from school during the GDL program.
  • Young adults are likely to continue driving aggressively until about 20 years of age, when accompanied by other young adults. Bhat and his colleagues suggest that concerted education and awareness campaigns on aggressive driving for teens ages 18-20 could help.
  • Drinking and driving is the deadliest combination for teen drivers and a parental lack of involvement may be a contributing factor in this. The study suggests that parents be required to go through a short, possibly community-based course motivating them to be proactive in managing their teen’s driving habits.
  • Teenagers driving a pickup are more likely to drive aggressively and sustain serious injuries in a crash. While a ban on pickups during the GDL program is impractical, Bhat and his colleagues recommend that it be communicated to parents as part of the program.
  • And, when it comes to aggressive driving behavior, a 16-17 year old is 368 percent more likely to drive aggressively than those 65 or older, while a teen just a couple of years older is only 195 percent more likely. In short, the younger a teen is, the more likely he/she will drive aggressively.

Bhat said some of the policy suggestions may cause more hassle for parents, like the suggestion to ban morning driving for teens in the GDL program.

“But, I’d much rather face all kinds of inconveniences than see my child be involved in a wreck leading to injuries to herself and/or others,” he said.

Bhat is already using suggestions that came out of the study with his teen daughter. He has a driving agreement with his daughter that, among other things, restricts her from driving past 10 p.m., driving with teenage passengers in her car, and driving if she’s had less than six consecutive hours of sleep.

"It may leave my daughter thinking I am anti-teenager” Bhat said, but it’s a reputation he is willing to hold if it means she’ll be a safer driver.

He still has not decided what type of vehicle to get her, but he’s certain of one thing: it won’t be a pickup.

Tips for parents from Dr. Chandra Bhat:

Make sure your teen is well rested before driving and is emotionally in control.

Don’t just monitor what your teen is doing but have a clear agreement with him/her on what they can and can’t do while driving and make sure they follow it.

Consider technology and safety features of a vehicle. Bhat said there is often a mentality with parents to give their teens the old family vehicle, which, while cheaper than buying a new car, usually does not have the latest safety features.

People are more likely to drive aggressively during morning rush hour because of time constraints to get to their work or office. Make sure your teen has enough time to reach her or his destination without worrying about being late.

Kids mimic what parents do. From the time they’re little, try not to drive aggressively, and set an example of safe and responsible driving.


In the News

Pickup truck speeding down highway

ABC News: In his latest column titled "Teen Drivers and Pickup Trucks, a Bad Mix?" columnist Lee Dye interviews transportation Professor Chandra Bhat. Read the full article on ABC News.

Professor Bhat sits on set at Fox 7

Fox 7: Professor Chandra Bhat stopped by Good Day to talk about travel safety in anticipation of the Thanksgiving holiday. Watch the full interview on Fox 7's Web site.

Saybra Moore, 17, a senior at Sam Rayburn High School, drives a 2006 Ford F-150, his second pickup. He totaled his first pickup in an accident. He said the wreck was not his fault.

The Houston Chronicle: In a recent article titled "Study finds teens, trucks a risky duo," reporter Jeannie Kever shares transportation Professor Chandra Bhat's research in relation to Texas law. Read the full article on The Houston Chronicle.

Reflection of a car in a mirror

KXAN: In a recent story on aggressive teen driving, reporter Doug Shupe interviews Professor Chandra Bhat and daughter, Prerna. Watch the full story on KXAN's Web site.