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Teen Driver Safety Researchers Use Simulator to Diagnose Driving

Published on June 10, 2015 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 4 months ago


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Editor's Note: This is the fourth of a four-part blog series about the Center for Injury Research and Prevention's development of a Simulated Driving Assessment tool.

Many newly licensed teen drivers do not know how to drive, according to a study by researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) and the University of Pennsylvania. Their findings are based on data generated by a validated Simulated Driving Assessment (SDA) they developed that can differentiate between skilled and non-skilled teen drivers.

“We’re providing the science behind the answer to why teens — and some adults — don’t drive well,” said Flaura K. Winston, MD, PhD, scientific director of the CIRP and principal investigator for the SDA line of research. “Some haven’t developed the skills they need to navigate complex driving situations and are crashing due to error.”

The SDA is a package of software products that runs on commercially available driving simulators. It is a safe way to assess novice drivers’ skills in high-risk driving scenarios. As a standard protocol to evaluate teen driver performance, the SDA has the potential to screen and assess for licensure readiness and could be used to guide targeted skill training.

Study participants were exposed to a series of “drives” during a 35-minute session that incorporated 22 variations of the most common ways teen drivers crash. The researchers analyzed numerous aspects of the drivers’ performance, from steering and braking reaction times to eye movement and headway time. Although the novice teen drivers were adept at basic driving skills such as using turn signals, the more advanced skills such as anticipating and responding to hazards proved challenging.

Nearly 43 percent of newly licensed teens (within three months of licensure) had a simulated crash at least once. For licensed, experienced adult drivers, that percentage was 29 percent. For every additional error committed during the SDA, the risk for crashing or running off the road increased by 8 percent.

The study, published in the journal Injury Prevention, followed more than a decade of foundational research regarding young driver crashes and more than five years of research to create and validate the SDA. Previous studies of newly licensed teenage drivers indicate that they exit the learner period with significant skill deficits, leading to a much higher risk of crashing compared with more experienced drivers. For teens in the U.S., motor vehicle crashes remain the number one cause of death.

Catherine McDonald, PhD, RN, lead author of the study and a teen driver safety researcher at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) School of Nursing and CIRP, sees an important role for the SDA while teens are still in the learner period and for those who are licensed but may have crash risks related to their skills or behaviors.

“What our research tells us is that a validated simulated driving test could be used to assess the driving skills needed to avoid crashes,” Dr. McDonald said. “If we can identify driving skill deficits in a safe, simulated environment, then we can tell families and driving instructors what to focus on during supervised practice drives or how to help those with citations or crashes who are already licensed.”

Parents and driving instructors can find research-based resources to help make their practice drives more effective and to help teens develop crucial skills that prevent crashes by visiting

To learn more, please check out part 1, part 2, and part 3 of the Simulated Driving Assessment blog series.