MONDAY, Nov. 3, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- As if the thought of teenagers driving before they've gotten their license isn't scary enough, a new study finds these same kids are also more likely to drive while drinking or on drugs, and more apt to not buckle up when they get behind the wheel.
Reporting in the November issue of Pediatrics, researchers found that about one in every 25 U.S. unlicensed teens drives at least one hour per week.
"These kids are getting out without supervision and putting themselves and others on the road at risk," said study senior author Dr. Flaura Winston, co-director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
"Accidents are the number one cause of death in 14-to-17-year-olds," she said. "We need to start thinking about driving as a health behavior, and we need to change the dialogue about unlicensed teen drivers. People need to understand it's not funny and it's not cute."
More than one-third of teen-aged deaths are the result of motor vehicle collisions, according to background information in the study. Previous research has suggested that unlicensed drivers have a significantly greater risk of being involved in a motor vehicle collision.
To assess which children might be most at risk of driving without a license, Winston and her colleagues reviewed data from a nationally representative sample that included almost 5,700 9th- through 11th-graders who participated in the National Young Driver Survey.
In total, 4.2 percent of these teens reported at least some unlicensed driving. Teens who reported unlicensed driving were more likely to drink, with 51 percent reporting having had a drink in the past month. Unlicensed drivers were twice as likely as licensed teens to "sometimes" use alcohol or drugs while driving. Those with lower grades were also more likely to be unlicensed drivers. Almost half of unlicensed drivers reported that they didn't use their seatbelts all the time.
Rural teens were more likely to be unlicensed drivers, as were children living centrally in cities. Blacks and Hispanics drove unlicensed more often than did white teens.
About 28 percent of unlicensed teens had taken driver's education compared to 62 percent of licensed teens. Unlicensed drivers were more likely to drive without a specific purpose. Almost 30 percent said they almost always drove "without a place to go."
Half of the unlicensed teens said that their parents were the people who were "most helpful in teaching them to drive."
"A lot of parents don't realize how incredibly dangerous the first period of driving is," said Winston, who explained that unlicensed teens simply can't have enough experience to drive well. "There are three things you need experience to do well: scan what's going on around you, be able to manage speed, and to not be distracted," said Winston.
"Licensing isn't protective in and of itself, but it does give structure to give teens the experience they need under low-risk conditions, and these kids are just completely missing out," Winston added.
"Let teens know that driving without a license is a risky behavior -- not to mention illegal -- and that it is not acceptable," advised Dr. Karen Sheehan, medical director of the Injury Prevention and Research Center at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "If the parents cannot, for whatever reason, [keep their kids safe], it is important to make sure teachers, coaches, and health-care providers serve as responsible role models -- speak up and inform kids of the risks."
Learn more about safety and teen drivers from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.