A new study shows that teen drivers are strongly influenced by their teen passengers’ attitudes toward driving, especially those passengers who openly condone risky driving behaviors, according to new research published in the journal Health Psychology.
The findings showed that male teen drivers took more risks in a driving simulator when they believed that their passenger approved of reckless driving.
Data has long shown that driving with peers significantly increases the odds of car accident deaths for teens, particularly males.
In fact, according to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a teen driver’s risk of death per mile increases by 44 percent with one teen passenger in the car and quadruples with three or more teen passengers.
But until now, researchers have been unable to pinpoint exactly why some teens’ driving behaviors spin out of control in the presence of friends.
“In the driving context, the perception that one’s friends drive in a risky manner is associated with higher rates of speeding and other risky driving,” writes lead author Bruce G. Simons-Morton, Ed.D., M.P.H.
“Accordingly, behaviors such as risky driving may be more likely to occur when perceived as preferred or expected by important others.”
For the study, a group of 66 male teens with new drivers licenses were randomly assigned to drive with either a risk-accepting or risk-averse peer passenger (actually a young-looking research confederate) in a driving simulator.
In the risk-accepting scenario, the confederate arrived late saying, “Sorry I was a little late getting here. Normally I drive way faster, but I hit like every red light.” As the risk-averse confederate, he said, “Sorry I was a little late getting here. I tend to drive slowly, plus I hit every yellow light.”
The young participant was then told that he had been randomly selected to be the driver for the experiment, but that, first, the confederate was going to try out the driving simulator just for fun. In the risk-accepting condition the confederate drove aggressively without wearing a seat belt, and in the risk-averse condition he put on a seat belt and drove as safely as possible.
The study participants then completed both a solo trip in the simulator and a trip with the confederate riding as passenger. Risky behavior was measured by tracking whether the driver stopped for red lights and how much time they spent at red lights.
Compared to their solo driving trips, teens took a lot more risks — running more red lights — when they had a passenger with them. But they were far more reckless when driving with the risk-accepting passenger compared to the risk-averse passenger.
So even though they were driving with a stranger, the teens changed their driving behavior to conform to the passenger’s attitudes.
The fact that the confederate in the study did not pressure the teens to drive in any specific way suggests that the findings may actually underestimate the true effects of peer influence on teens’ driving, the researchers concluded.