Do Teens Make North Carolina’s Roads More Dangerous?

As we sifted through the excellent data from the North Carolina 2020 Traffic Crash Facts book released by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, a question emerged.

The “COVID year” in 2020 was, by many measures, an outlier as far as traffic data was concerned. The pandemic forced many to stay home, yet the estimated annual vehicle miles traveled in the state still increased from the previous year. And traffic deaths rose – even as crashes and injuries dropped. What role did teens play in all this?

We questioned the effects of the government’s response to the COVID pandemic. One factor in the rise in fatalities appeared to be that drivers who were less risk-averse continued driving, and took more chances. Teens, it could be argued, fall into that category. So does the data bear it out?

Teens, Crashes, Injuries, and Fatalities in 2020

North Carolina saw a dip in crashes and injuries on its roads in 2020, but an increase in fatalities. Data for teens seems to mirror that big picture, but there are a few points in the data that we found interesting.

    • 49% of fatally injured vehicle occupants ages 14-19 were not wearing their seat belts, according to 2020 data. Sadly, this isn’t an anomaly. The five-year average is 48%.


    • Teens were involved in 16% fewer accidents and had nearly 17% fewer injuries than the five-year average in 2020, but saw nearly 29% more fatalities in accidents involving teens, regardless of driver age. They’re not exact, but these trends are similar to the overall statistical portrait of the state.


    • Speed was cited in 42.1% of crashes with teen fatalities, 2.2% below the five-year average. Counterintuitively, while speeding was almost certainly more common on North Carolina’s roads as more risk-averse drivers stayed home, speeding wasn’t as much of an issue for teens.


    • Alcohol-related teen fatalities were 22.4%, almost double 2019’s percentage and nearly 5% over the five-year average.


    • 42,849 (17.3%) of North Carolina’s 247,214 crashes involved teens. In 2020, 6,246 (2.5%) of crashes involved teen drivers – the same percentage as 2019.


    • In 2020, there were 69,001 injury crashes in North Carolina. Teen drivers were involved in 6,184 (8.9%) of those crashes.


Visualizing North Carolina Teen Crash Data for 2020

It is important to note that the NCDOT data draws a line between crashes involving teens regardless of driver age and teen drivers. Unless specified, teen data refers to the former group.

And the data still tells a compelling story. These teens, however, are not necessarily contributing to the danger on North Carolina roads.

Crashes, Injuries, and Fatalities: 2020 More Deadly

2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Crashes 48,386 50,723 52,385 50,988 51,061 42,849
Injury Crashes 10,218 10,460 10,687 10,165 9,834 8,505
Fatal Crashes 81 87 78 63 77 98
Fatalities % of Crashes 0.16% 0.17% 0.14% 0.12% 0.15% 0.22%
Fatalities % of Injury Crashes 0.79% 0.83% 0.72% 0.61% 0.78% 1.15%

Total Teen Fatalities: Top 3 Causes by Year

2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Alcohol 18 13 14 17 9 24
Speed 33 48 34 35 33 45
Lane Departure 49 71 71 47 62 86
Distracted Driving 6 12 10 7 5 8

*Note that there may be more than one cause cited for a crash.

Where Are Teens at Most Risk on North Carolina Roads?

Looking into the data further, certain North Carolina counties saw inordinate numbers of teen fatalities. In 2020, the deadliest county in North Carolina for teens was Guilford County, with 11 deaths – more than 10% of the state’s total of 107 and 15% of all Guilford County traffic deaths (of which there were 73). Guilford County also had the highest teen death per injury crash percentage in counties with more than 1,000 crashes, at 1.66%.

Digging even deeper, 78 (79.5%) of teen fatalities occurred in just 29 (29%) of North Carolina counties. In 2020, 51 counties in North Carolina reported zero teen fatalities. Another 20 reported just one teen fatality.

Top 5 Deadliest Counties for Teens

Rank County Teen Fatalities
1 Guilford 11
2 Mecklenburg 9
3 (tie) Durham 4
3 (tie) Wake 4
3 (tie) Rutherford 4


Top 5 Counties: Most Teen Crashes

Rank County Teen Crashes
1 Mecklenburg 4,985
2 Wake 4,572
3 Guilford 2,256
4 Cumberland 1,324
5 Union 1,163


Top 5 Counties: Most Teen Injuries

Rank County Teen Injuries
1 Mecklenburg 1,271
2 Wake 922
3 Guilford 662
4 Forsyth 414
5 Cumberland 329

Did Teen Drivers Make North Carolina Roads More Dangerous?

To determine this, we need to add some context to the NCDOT data – we know how many teen drivers were involved in crashes, injury crashes, and crashes with fatalities. The data does not indicate exactly how many or what percentage of the state’s drivers are, in fact, teens.

For that, we refer to data sourced from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) regarding licensed drivers in each state. While the data is from 2019, it was published in 2020, and can offer useful (if incongruent) context.

According to FHWA data, there were 226,458 licensed drivers aged 19 and under in North Carolina. The same data indicates 7,620,001 total licensed drivers in the state at that time. That means that just about 2.97% of North Carolina’s licensed drivers are teens.

We know from NCDOT data how many crashes, injury crashes, and fatal crashes drivers aged 15-19 were involved in. Combining those data sets, we can draw a few conclusions.

Note: The FHWA data only includes licensed drivers, whereas the NCDOT data only rates for age, meaning the teens who were driving may not have been licensed. While we understand that this may skew things, we believe that the skew would be minimal.

  • Among 226,458 teen drivers, there were 6,246 injury crashes. That means 2.75% of teen drivers were in injury crashes, assuming no drivers were in more than one crash. The rest of North Carolina’s 7,393,543 licensed drivers were involved in 69,340 injury crashes, or 0.9%. Predictably, teen drivers are more prone to crashes.
  • Of the 107 teen deaths on North Carolina’s roads in 2020, 62 were driving. The total number of North Carolina drivers killed regardless of age was 1,097. So, teen drivers represent 5.65% of driver fatalities even though they only constitute about 3% of the state’s drivers.
  • Overall, teen drivers were killed in 62 of the state’s 1,523 fatal crashes. This assumes more than one teen driver was not involved in the same crash. Still, that’s 4% of the total for roughly 3% of the driving population.

So the answer to the burning question seems to be an unsurprising “yes.” Teens as a whole are simply less experienced and perhaps less disciplined behind the wheel. You can see the overall trend in the table below.

Teen Drivers: Crashes, Injuries, and Fatalities (5-Year Trend, Drivers Age 15-19)

2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Crashes 7,439 7,486 7,744 7,440 7,148 6,246
Injuries 7,380 7,419 7,698 7,394 7,097 6,184
Fatalities 59 67 46 46 51 62
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About the Author

Jeremy Maddox is a lead personal injury attorney for the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin in North Carolina. He was listed on the “Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch”a list by Best Lawyers in America in 2021, The National Trial Lawyers’ “Top 100 Trial Lawyers”b list in 2020 and 2021 and “Top 40 Under 40″B list in 2021, and the “Legal Elite”c list by Business North Carolina in 2021. Jeremy is a member of the North Carolina Bar Association, the Mecklenburg County Bar Association, and the 26th Judicial District Bar Association, as well as the North Carolina Advocates for Justice.

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