Forcing teens to earn drivers license saves lives

(Washington, D.C.) -- A proven life saver for new drivers has spread to 33 states and the District of Columbia: the graduated license for new drivers.

Sean McLaurin, a highway safety specialist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said that preliminary studies in North Carolina and Virginia show a 25 percent drop in fatalities among 16-year-olds. Night-time crashes involving young people have been cut almost in half using this innovation.

While the laws differ from state to state, they have several features in common. In the past, teens in most states could become fully licensed drivers by passing a short written exam and a road test. Some states required several months of driving with a learners permit, which required the teen to drive with a licensed adult in the passenger seat.

Now, in more than half the states, the transition comes in three stages: from learners permit to a restricted license for six months or a year, to a full license.

Generally, the restrictions include a curfew and limits on the number of passengers. Most require teenagers to take driver education classes, and any traffic violations, accidents or convictions for drug or alcohol use keep the new driver from moving on to the next stage. Some states require new drivers to be off the road as early as 9 p.m., but midnight or 1 a.m. is more common.

McLaurin believes that limiting the number of passengers a new driver can have in the car is especially important, because teenagers tend to show off to their friends and are easily distracted.

"You start adding distraction to the driving of a car and you have a major recipe for disaster," he said.

Inexperienced drivers do not have the ability to prioritize as well as other drivers with more years behind the wheel do and tend to focus on what is going on inside the car, not outside, McLaurin said. By the time they realize that they are in trouble, they are "neck-deep."

Teenagers are also more likely to die in car crashes because of risk-taking behavior, combining driving with drinking and drugs and low seatbelt use. NHTSA data shows that 16-year-olds have a staggering 43 crashes per million miles driven; 17 of the 43 are fatal. That rate drops to 30 and 13 respectively, for 17-year-olds, and 16 and 8 for 18-year-olds.

Overall, teenagers are twice as likely to be involved in crashes and to be killed as drivers in their early 20s and three times as likely as those over the age of 25.

Maryland was the first state to introduce graduated licenses, starting with a pilot program in 1979. California followed in 1983 and Oregon in 1989. Some foreign countries have also followed suit, and Ontario in Canada reported an especially dramatic drop in deaths among 16-year-olds, who were being killed in traffic crashes at three times the rate of the general population under the old system.

Ontario reported that a year after the graduated license system went into effect, fatalities among 16-year-olds had been cut to the general population rate -- and they are less likely than the general public to be involved in crashes.

McLaurin said that police officers should not be afraid to enforce the law, including passenger restrictions, and should be knowledgeable about the details.

McLaurin suggested that the laws also demonstrate, by forcing teens to "earn their way through the system" that driving is a privilege and a skill that must be learned. And the laws also give parents a tool in the decades-old battle over use of the family car.

NHTSA has proposed a model law for states to follow that includes zero tolerance for alcohol and drug convictions. The agency also recommends that learners permits and licenses issued to anyone under the age of 21 be distinct in color or shape from other licenses, something that would make enforcement easier.

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