Background: Deaths and injuries on the road remain a major cause of premature death among young people across the world. Routinely collected data usually focuses on the mechanism of road traffic collisions and basic demographic data of those involved. This study aimed to supplement these routine sources with a thematic analysis of narrative text contained in coroners' records, to explore the wider social context in which collisions occur. Methods. Thematic analysis of narrative text from Coroners' records, retrieved from thirty-four fatalities among young people (16-24 year olds) occurring as a result of thirty road traffic collisions in a rural county in the south of England over the period 2005-2010. Results: Six key themes emerged: social driving, driving experience, interest in motor vehicles, driving behaviour, perception of driving ability, and emotional distress. Social driving (defined as a group of related behaviours including: driving as a social event in itself (i.e. without a pre-specified destination); driving to or from a social event; driving with accompanying passengers; driving late at night; driving where alcohol or drugs were a feature of the journey) was identified as a common feature across cases. Conclusions: Analysis of the wider social context in which road traffic collisions occur in young people can provide important information for understanding why collisions happen and developing targeted interventions to prevent them. It can complement routinely collected data, which often focuses on events immediately preceding a collision. Qualitative analysis of narrative text in coroner's records may provide a way of providing this type of information. These findings provide additional support for the case for Graduated Driver Licensing programmes to reduce collisions involving young people, and also suggest that road safety interventions need to take a more community development approach, recognising the importance of social context and focusing on social networks of young people. © 2014 Pilkington et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.