Teen Driving Safety: Least and Most Dangerous States

Originally published in

An analysis of states based on safety and insurance cost factors shows that Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania have the safest driving environment for teens, while Montana, North Dakota and Kansas have the worst.

Getting your license is a rite of passage for teens, but that privilege comes with responsibility. As teens get ready for prom season, looked at teen driver safety and insurance costs by state to see which states are the safest for teen drivers. We ran the numbers and found that the safest driving environments for teens are in:

  1. Maryland
  2. New York
  3. Pennsylvania
  4. Connecticut
  5. Massachusetts

On the flip side, the states with the worst numbers are:

  1. Montana (51)
  2. North Dakota (50)
  3. Kansas (49)
  4. Wyoming (48)
  5. Alabama (47)

This is the second year that performed this analysis. Maryland and Massachusetts are the only states from last year’s top three to again make the top three this year (Massachusetts and Alaska were first and third respectively last year).

Montana and North Dakota are again the bottom two states this year. Last year, Louisiana joined them as third from the bottom.

The analysis comes at a time when the latest numbers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show an increase in the number of teen driver-related fatal accidents.

The 2015 figures show that young drivers were involved in 1,886 fatal accidents. This is a 9 percent jump from 2014 (1,886 vs. 1,723). Teen drivers were also involved in 14 percent more crashes in 2015, according to the NHTSA.

Despite those sobering figures, young driver fatalities are still much lower than a decade ago. The NHTSA said fatal crashes involving young drivers dropped 43 percent from 2006 to 2015. That’s an encouraging trend despite the alarming 2015 figures.

Most and least safe states for teen drivers

To identify the best and worst states for teen drivers, analyzed five teen-driving metrics:

  • Number of teen driver fatalities per 100,000 population
  • Effectiveness of Graduated Driving License (GDL) components
  • Teen drinking and driving rates
  • Teen emailing/texting and driving rates
  • Average annual insurance costs for teen drivers, which is a reflection of the risk level for this driving group

We gave each state a weighted score to determine rankings, with the safest states topping the list and the states with the lowest scores at the bottom.

Maryland topped our list this year as the safest state for teen drivers, after finishing second last year. The state had a low number of teen-related fatal accidents in 2015 (.3 per 100,000 residents) and has some of the strongest GDL laws in the country.

Last year’s safest state, Massachusetts, dropped to fifth place this year. The Bay State continued having one of the lowest teen-related fatal accident rate and strong GDL laws, which helped it to edge out California and Virginia for the No. 5 rank.

The new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System results about drunk driving and texting while driving were the major differences this year. Massachusetts survey numbers were worse than Maryland’s, which contributed to Massachusetts dropping from the top spot.

On the other side, Montana and North Dakota remained in the bottom two spots. Both states had a high per capita number of fatal accidents involving teens, lacked strong GDL provisions, and experienced poor teen survey results for drinking while driving and texting while driving.

Here is the full list from No. 1 to No. 51. SEE FULL CHART ON ORIGINAL ARTICLE.

Teen driver fatalities numbers on the rise

Despite much better numbers over the past 10 years, motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Plus, the fatal accidents numbers for 2015 are a concern, but groups like NHTSA are working to move the trend back in the right direction.

“Obtaining a driver’s license is an important milestone in any young person’s life,” says the NHTSA. “It is also a privilege and responsibility that requires commitment from all parties involved. For teens, parents, driving instructors and peers, safety behind the wheel benefits everyone on the road ahead.”

Kara Macek, senior director of communications and programs at the Governors Highway Safety Association,  (GHSA) says some of the reasons behind the increase are an improved economy, so teens have more disposable income, people traveling more, and lower gas prices. Teens using social media and messaging apps behind the wheel also play a large role.

“Since there’s no one reason for the increase, advocates and officials need to take a multi-faceted approach to teen driver safety and look for a variety of solutions,” says Macek.

Older teens in more fatal crashes than younger teens

The GHSA recently released a report called “Mission Not Accomplished: Teen Safe Driving, the Next Chapter” that showed a higher rate of fatal crashes among older teens rather than 16- and 17-year-olds.

The GHSA analyzed fatal crash data from 2005-2014 that involved drivers 15 to 20 years old. Though teen driver involvement in fatal crashes decreased by 48 percent in that time, the report dug deeper into the crash data and found that older teens account for most teen drivers killed during the 10-year period. The top age groups for fatalities were 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds, and 18-year-olds.

Macek says the figures are “alarming, though not altogether unpredictable.”

Here’s one possible reason — limits on GDL provisions. GDL laws ease teens into driving while they mature behind the wheel. The GDL process usually includes a learner’s permit, an intermediate license, which puts limits on driving, and finally a license with full privileges. The limits often restrict nighttime driving or operating a vehicle with other teens in the car.

The GDL laws usually stop at the age of 18, which means older teens have fewer driving restrictions. This could be a factor in the higher percentage of fatal crashes for older teens.

Macek says many teens wait to get their licenses at 18 or 19, which means they don’t have to comply with GDL restrictions — though they’re new drivers.

“As the report shows, one in three teens isn’t licensed by the age 18, which means that when they get their license, they often aren’t going through the graduated driver licensing process and getting the education necessary to learn safe driving skills,” says Macek. “For teens that were licensed at 16 or 17, by the time they’re 18 or 19, they’ve gotten comfortable driving, forgotten some of the training, and are likely to start taking more risks — even though they’re still fairly inexperienced drivers.”

As a way to combat this issue, Macek says the GHSA suggests that all states increase GDL laws for drivers until the age of 21. Only New Jersey has that kind of restriction.

“Expanding GDL would ensure that the vast majority of people getting a driver’s license for the first time have received adequate training and education on safe driving,” she says.

The GHSA is advocating that states strengthen GDL laws to improve driver safety.

“While 18 may be the age of majority in most states, its arrival does not mean a teen driver is now risk-free,” said the GHSA in its report. “It takes time — as much as three to five years — for a teen driver to gain the experience and the maturity needed to advance from being competent and tactical to strategically skilled.”

Graduated license laws 

Both the GHSA and NHTSA agree that GDL laws have played a key role in reducing fatal accidents involving teens over the past decade.

“For the most part, GDL is the most effective countermeasure we have seen that contributed to the decline in teen driver fatalities,” says Macek.

States devise their own GDL system, so there are great variations between states. States with the strongest GDL laws have seen the highest reduction in fatal-related crashes, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI).

According to IIHS, 13 states could sharply reduce fatal crash rates among 15- to 17-year-olds if they adopted the five strongest GDL provisions. The five states that could reduce teen fatal crash rates the most with more effective GDL laws are:

  • South Dakota — 63 percent
  • North Dakota — 56 percent
  • Iowa — 55 percent
  • Montana — 53 percent
  • Arkansas — 50 percent

To find how your state fares for effective GDL laws, see the map below; hover on your state to see the numbers, as well as each state’s teen fatal stats, compared to the national average. 


Drunken driving

Drunken driving leads to more accidents, and it’s a problem among teens even though they are not at the legal drinking age yet.

GHSA estimates that 10 percent of young teens and 20 percent of older teens involved in fatal crashes had blood alcohol levels of .01 percent of higher. This is especially a problem for males. GHSA said male teens were twice as lightly to have a blood alcohol level of .08 percent than teen females. Teen males are also less likely to wear a seatbelt.

“Teen males can be a hard group to reach, but the report cites evidence that one of the best ways to message this audience is through key influencers like musicians and athletes,” says Macek.

Here’s how states rank regarding percentage of high school students age 16 and over who reported drinking and driving in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey.


Texting and driving

While drunken driving and seatbelt use are a bigger issue for male teens, female teens are more apt to drive while being distracted. This could include using a cell phone, texting, or talking to other people in the car.

“Getting teens to stop driving distracted is part of a larger cultural shift that needs to happen to get people to put their phones down and focus on driving,” says Macek.

Macek says one way to reduce distracted teen drivers is for parents not to text or use their cell phones when driving. Teens mimic parent behavior.

“NHTSA believes learning safe driving habits can also be derived from observation and parental involvement. A parent being involved in their teen driver’s education can have a lasting effect on their driving habits. Establishing rules and providing input into their driving behavior can better prepare them for situations they will encounter on their own. Surveys have shown that teens whose parents impose driving restrictions and set good examples typically engage in less risky driving and are involved in fewer crashes,” says the NHTSA.

Parents play an important role, but found in a survey last year that most of the 500 parents surveyed allowed their kids to break at least one GDL law (59 percent).

Here’s how states rank for percentage of high school students age 16 and over who reported driving and texting or emailing, according to a CDC survey.


Insurance costs for teens

Insurance companies consider teen drivers as high-risk drivers because of their driving inexperience and youth. It can cost thousands of dollars to insure teens. There are factors beyond age, too, including the amount and cost of claims, driving record, and type of car.

Here are how states rank from most to least for insurance costs for teens



For overall ranking, each state was scored from 1 to 5 (1, poor, 2 fair, 3 good, 4 very good, 5 excellent) on each metric. Metrics were weighted as follows: Insurance cost – 10%; Fatal teen crashes – 30%; Leniency of GDL laws – 20%; Teen drinking and driving – 20%; Teen texting and emailing – 20%. Data shown for individual metrics is ranked by raw number. In cases where a state did not participate in federal surveys, the national average was used.


Car insurance rates: commissioned rates from Quadrant Information Services for six major carriers in 10 ZIP codes in each state for coverage of 100/300/100 with a $500 deductible for ages 16, 17, 18 and 19.

Fatal crashes: Teen driver fatalities from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics report “Fatalities in Crashes Involving a Young Driver (Ages 15 – 20) by State and Fatality Type; 2015 Fatality Analysis Reporting System” were divided by the 2015 state population. The result was multiplied by 100,000 to get a rate per 100,000 population.

Graduated Driver License specifications and effective licensing provisions: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety/Highway Loss Data Institute; Governor’s Highway Safety Association. GDL laws scored on estimated percent reduction of teen fatal crash rate if stricter laws in place.

High school teens drinking and driving: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2015.

High school teens texting or emailing while driving: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2015.

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