Case Report

Fatal Passenger Vehicle Crashes 1999 to 2004 with Drivers Under Age 15: The Impact in Texas and Other Southern and Southwestern States

Authors: Larry Frisch, MD, MPH


Texas has more fatal crashes involving unlicensed drivers under age 15 than does any other US state. Numbers and rates of such crashes are also above the national mean in many southern and Southwest states. Data on fatal passenger vehicle crashes from 1999 through 2004 were obtained from the online Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). During the study period, there were 51 fatal passenger vehicle crashes in Texas in which drivers were under age 15. These crashes accounted for 12.3% of the US total. Nine southern states, including Texas, together accounted for 44% of all fatal crashes involving drivers under 15. Unlicensed crash rates per million inhabitants were higher in Texas than in other states with comparable populations but were much lower than those in other southern, southwest, and north central states. While Texas has recently improved its compliance with proposed graduated licensing models, state law explicitly prohibits police from stopping drivers based solely on age-related probable cause. This restriction may be a major barrier to effective detection and interdiction of under-age unlicensed driving.

Because of the relatively high number of fatal crashes involving drivers under age 15 occurring in Texas, preventive efforts targeted to this state could modestly reduce the national burden of deaths due to very young unlicensed drivers. Expanding these efforts to other southern and southwest states could further reduce numbers and rates of such crashes. Expanded use of graduated licensing and increased public awareness are likely to prove effective tools in this public health effort.

Key Points

* Unlicensed driving accounts for up to 20% of fatal motor vehicle crashes nationally.

* A small proportion of unlicensed drivers are under 15 years of age.

* Texas has the highest number of fatal passenger vehicle crashes involving drivers under 15 in the US.

* Crash rates/100,000 inhabitants are fifteen times higher in Texas nonmetro compared to metro counties.

* Successful prevention of fatal very young driver crashes in Texas would reduce the national impact of these events but may require legalization of probable-cause police stops for underage driving.

* Similar efforts in a number of other southern and southwest states could significantly reduce the number of fatalities due to unlicensed underage driving.

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*2004 fatal crash numbers for drivers 16 and older were obtained from FARS and then multiplied by six to calculate a six-year rate. 

Other states allowing driving before the age of 15 include Iowa, Kansas, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Michigan, and Montana.