States Limit Teen Driving to Improve Safety
By Joseph Popiolkowski , Staff Writer
State legislators in 48 of the 50 states believe they've curbed the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year-olds and made their roads safer by restricting teen driving through "graduated drivers license" programs. The effort is so clearly working the country's final holdouts - Wyoming and Montana - are moving to join it.
After years of failed attempts, Wyoming's legislature and governor early this month approved a graduated licensing program for young drivers, and legislation that would limit teen driving privileges is pending in Montana.
It's logical to support a phased approach to driving rather than one where a young driver can gain full driving privileges immediately, said Wyoming state Sen. Rosie Berger (R), sponsor of the bill.
Graduated licensing is a radical change for Montana, a state that permits drinking alcohol while driving, that briefly abandoned highway speed limits and that allows teens to drive with a learner's permit at age 14 and a half.
"Montana has an independent persona," said Montana state Sen. Kim Gillan (D), sponsor of the pending bill to forbid night driving and non-family teen passengers. "People may chafe at restrictions being put on driving. But I think most parents feel they'd like to have this in their toolbox."
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) has not taken a position on the driving bill, said the governor's press secretary, Sarah Elliot. Schweitzer has promised to sign legislation banning open containers of alcohol in cars if it gets to his desk.
To try to reduce young drivers' high crash risk, states in the mid-1990s began instituting a three-tired licensing system, which phases in full driving privileges through a learner's permit, an intermediate licensing stage and age and required experience at the wheel. For example, Wyoming's new law requires at least 50 hours of supervised driving with at least 10 of that logged at night.
In 1998, a transportation money bill approved by the U.S. Congress gave states a financial incentive for going to graduated licensing.
After several failed attempts to pass such a program, Wyoming saw the need this year to come into line with other states' safe-driving laws, Berger said.
"The graduated driver's license system is based on proven principles that young drivers will be safer drivers if they gain initial experience in low-risk conditions, if they have extended supervised driving practice and if they gradually move to more complex driving conditions," Berger told Stateline.org.
Most states limit when teens can drive, who can be in the car and at what age they can gain intermediate and full driving privileges - the key elements that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends.
All but 11 states include nighttime driving restrictions for novice drivers, according to recent American Automobile Association data. This is due, in large part, to the fact that 41 percent of teenage motor vehicle deaths in 2002 occurred between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit sponsored by the insurance industry to study accident data. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia limit by law the number of passengers a young driver can have.
Statistics indicate graduated licensing saves lives.
Fatal accidents involving 16 year-olds in the U.S. decreased 26 percent between 1993 and 2003 despite an increase in this age's population, according to a study released last month by the Insurance Institute.
"It makes great common sense to attribute the decrease in accidents and fatalities to the GDL programs," said AAA spokeswoman Martha Mitchell.
A growing trend for states with graduated licensing is to take on distracted driving by barring cell phone use by teens.
Maine and New Jersey in 2002 were the first states to do so. New York and Washington D.C. followed suit but allow the use of hands-free devices.
Cell phone bans were introduced in at least seven other states in the first three months of 2005. Both of Maryland's houses passed bills this month that prohibit provisional drivers from using cell phones, except in an emergency. Each house will review the other's bill before agreeing on one for Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) to review.