Teens may be more skillful drivers than more experienced motorists

Teenage drivers may not be the accelerator-mashing menaces they're made out to be.

A recent study by the University of California at Los Angeles found that many teens fared better behind the wheel than older motorists, even when navigating some of the state's worst roads. 

The analysis followed 100 novice drivers – 50 male and 50 female – who were prepping for their motor vehicle license test. Researchers found that younger male drivers had a higher skill rating than men in their 20s also preparing for the test. While young women tended to report feeling "less confident" behind the wheel, they're equal to their male counterparts -- perhaps because they are more safety conscious.

The research findings don't mean that teenagers, who now have to pay the most for car insurance of any age group, are about to start finding better premiums. Teens aged 16 to 20 still have more fatal, injury and property-damaging accidents than any other age group, the study noted. But they do offer clues about which teens make better drivers.

"Based on the results of the current study, we hypothesize that the relatively high accident rate of younger drivers (especially male drivers) is most likely due to inattention to safety considerations rather than lack of technical driving ability," the researchers write.

The results of traveling the white-knuckle roads around Malibu and on La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles with an instructor found that teens who played sports turned out to be the best drivers. By contrast, those who spent much of their free time in front of a computer screen playing video games were no better than average.

"If you want your teen to be a better driver, advise him or her to get involved in sports," said Nancy Wayne, UCLA vice chancellor for research and a physiologist, who co-authored the study with instructor Gregory Miller of the Westwood Driving School."If your teen claims that video gaming is going to help them be a better driver, don't believe it."

The study showed that teen drivers who participated in sports were quicker on the brake when an accident was about to happen. Almost any type of sports activity improved peripheral vision, which is key to seeing what's taking place on either side of the vehicle, especially in heavy traffic.

Wayne plans to conduct a second study that will analyze, among other things, whether people's socioeconomic status has any relation to whether they pass driving tests. This could very well put the UCLA researcher at odds with most auto insurers, since they use criteria such as education, job status and credit card score when deciding how much to charge applicants for coverage.

Wayne is in no rush to have her 18-year-old daughter on the road, noting that she hasn't learned to drive yet.

"My daughter's been putting it off, but plans on learning to drive this summer. And when she gets her driver's license, I'll trust her behind the wheel since she has overall excellent judgment."

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.