Teens don’t drive as much as they used to … and that can kill our troops

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Air Education and Training Command Safety Directorate

An investigation into a recent Department of Defense tactical vehicle rollover crash that left two servicemembers dead and 15 injured revealed the driver had been going too fast while trying to negotiate a 90-degree turn at a traffic light. However, it also uncovered a less apparent cause. While the driver had all the appropriate licenses and certifications, he still lacked driving experience … not just in the tactical vehicle but driving in general. This revelation underscores a growing trend in vehicle mishaps: Many of today’s young drivers don’t have as much experience on the road as those in the past.

In 1995, nearly 64 percent of teens ages 16 to 19 got their license to drive; by 2021, that number had dropped to below 40 percent, according to the Federal Highway Administration. When looking at just 16-year-olds during the same timeframe, the numbers plummeted from 46 to 25 percent.

Experts say part of the reason for this trend is that instead of navigating roads, teenagers are navigating the internet and social media, meeting up with their friends virtually instead of driving to see them in person. Additionally, post-Covid inflation may be playing a role. For many, it’s simply too expensive to drive, and they opt for ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber for their transportation rather than take on the expenses of owning and operating a vehicle.

Whatever the reasons, many young men and women entering the military today don’t have as much driving experience, on average, as their predecessors. This lack of experience is becoming a factor in more and more driving mishaps, both on and off duty.

In the tragic tactical vehicle mishap case, the inexperienced driver of the 7-ton vehicle sped along at 35 to 40 mph while attempting that sharp turn. The ensuing rollover resulted in the ejection of all the troops riding in the cargo area.

This highlights an important lesson learned: Being a licensed driver doesn’t mean a military member is a proficient driver.

“When investigating mishaps, we tend to focus on licensing and training records to verify if someone was qualified,” said Col. Will Phillips, Air Education and Training Command’s Director of Safety. “But it’s important to recognize good training records do not equal proficiency. Yes, Airmen and Guardians should possess a baseline of understanding and demonstrate the minimum standards required to safely operate a particular vehicle, but we all know that doing something properly may require, in certain circumstances, proficiency above the bare minimum.”

Studies show drivers significantly decrease their risk of an accident in the first three months of independent driving, according to an accident analysis and prevention article by ScienceDirect, and that trend continues throughout the first year of driving. Additionally, almost half of serious driving accidents involving teens result from skills that improve with experience like proper scanning to detect hazards, driving too fast for the given road conditions, and being distracted by something at the wrong time, according to the article “Basic Facts About Teen Crashes” from Teen Driver Source (chop.edu) based on data collected from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“This is a challenging problem to solve, but we need to look at our driver training programs at each wing to ensure they are structured to recognize when drivers possess a low experience base with driving in general when they join the service,” Phillips said.

“We can’t assume our Airmen, especially our new recruits, have very much driving experience,” he added. “All drivers aren’t created equally. Someone fresh from obtaining a license hasn’t had a chance to build a baseline of experience on the road. Supervisors need to leverage a risk management mindset when they select drivers, and look for those with verified maturity, confidence and experience to correct problems encountered on the road and ensure safe driving.”