States Using Graduated Licenses To Curb Teen Driving Deaths

 

WASHINGTON - Alarmed by the disproportionately high death rates that teenage drivers and their youthful passengers suffer in crashes, states are increasingly relying on graduated licensing laws to stop the carnage.

More than half of all states, 27, have adopted graduated-licensing since 1996, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oregon, Wisconsin, Colorado and Missouri are mulling measures that could drive the total to 31.

Those states would follow Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah and Virginia.

While each state's scheme differs slightly, graduated-licensing programs are typically spread over three phases. Phase I usually begins with a young driver 15 or 16 years of age, who is granted a learner's permit calling for driving supervision by a licensed adult for six months.

Provided the neophyte motorist accrues no citations or accidents during the learner's permit phase, the next step up the ladder is a provisional license that often imposes nighttime driving curfews and restrictions on how many passengers the provisional licensee can haul.

Following a year or so with no speeding tickets, minor traffic infractions, or accidents where the young driver is to blame, the now more experienced -- and presumably wiser teen motorist is awarded an unrestricted driver's license.

Graduated driving licenses are "an idea that we support," NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd says. "The first year of driving is the most dangerous, and then you steadily improve. New drivers need help."

Hurd's agency has a web page devoted to graduated licenses. Click here for the website. The NHTSA also publishes a booklet, "Saving Teenage Lives, The Case for Graduated Driver Licensing."

Sixteen-year-old drivers tend to be involved in auto crashes three times as often as 17-year-olds and five times as often as 18-year-olds, according to NHTSA. When compared with 20- to 24-year-olds, 16-year-old drivers crash an astounding 15 times more often. When the age group being compared is 85-year-olds, 16-year-olds have accidents twice as often, according to NHTSA.

Teenagers tend to have more accidents because inexperience, risk-taking behavior and immaturity make for a bad combination, safety experts say. Further compounding matters is that teens often drive at night with other teens in the car, they add.

The disproportionate teen driver accident rate recently led Colorado's legislature to pass a graduated licensing bill that now awaits the signature of Gov. Bill Owens.

Colorado Sen. Bob Martinez voted for the measure last month, ignoring the pleas of a vocal at home critic Martinez's 14-year-old son, Julian, who happened to accompany his father to Colorado's statehouse when the bill was being debated.

"He was sitting right next to me when the bill had its second reading," Martinez chuckles. "He said, `Why are you doing that to us?' Of course, I explained that it's for their well-being and safety. He wasn't satisfied with the answers.

"I agree with the bill," says Martinez. Having already raised two teenaged drivers, he knows "it's enough to turn your hair gray very quickly."
WASHINGTON - Alarmed by the disproportionately high death rates that teenage drivers and their youthful passengers suffer in crashes, states are increasingly relying on graduated licensing laws to stop the carnage. More than half of all states, 27, have adopted graduated-licensing since 1996, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oregon, Wisconsin, Colorado and Missouri are mulling measures that could drive the total to 31.

Colorado's bill requires learner's permits to be held for six months and for the permit holder to log at least 50 hours of wheel time -- 10 of them at night. Sixteen-year-old drivers are banned from driving after midnight without a parent, unless traveling to or from work, and teenage drivers wouldn't be able to carry more passengers than their vehicle has seatbelts to accommodate.

A lawmaker bucking the nationwide trend favoring graduated licenses is Oregon Rep. Mike Lehman. The Democrat cast the only dissenting vote last month when Oregon's House Transportation Committee approved 7 to 1 a measure limiting the number of passengers that drivers under 18 can transport during their first year with a license.

The measure, which later passed on the House floor, also prohibits drivers under 18 from driving between midnight and 5 a.m., compels them to show proof of 50 hours of driving experience under the supervision of a licensed adult driver, and adds $1 to the driver's licenses renewal fee of all Oregon drivers to fund drivers education.

Lehman, who lives in a rural district, said the bill "was much more prejudicial toward rural young people than urban young people. I just had a child turn 16 in October, and I already see how much other parents and children rely on them getting rides," Lehman says. "I think it should be a parental concern, not a state concern.

"If we really wanted to deal with the issue" he adds, "we would adequately fund driver education in high schools." Oregon currently pays for one-third of the driver education tab in public schools, according to Lehman.

Other critics of graduated licensing laws say they turn teenagers whose driving privileges are denied or delayed into scofflaws, because the desire to drive is keen among the young.

Early evidence would seem to indicate that graduated licensing laws are saving teenaged lives. In July 1997, Georgia began enforcing a law calling for night curfews for teenage drivers, passenger limits and more adult supervision of teenage drivers, following a rise in teenage deaths.

Fatalities among Georgia teen drivers fell from 157 in 1996 to 126 in 1997. Deaths among passengers in cars driven by teens dropped from 330 in 1996 to 275 in 1997.

Graduating licenses seem to be effective elsewhere, statistics indicate:

  • California says crashes for drivers ranging from 15 to 17 years old have declined by 5 percent.
  • Maryland reports that crashes for 16- and 17-year-old drivers have dropped 5 percent, and convictions have gone down 10 percent.
  • Teenage traffic fatalities in Florida plummeted 21 percent after a graduated licensing law was enforced in 1997.

In North Carolina, where graduated-licensing has been on the books since 1997, a related law takes licenses from teenage drivers if they do poorly in high school, or if they drop out. The statute took effect in August and is the brainchild of Republican Rep. Wilma Sherrill.

"I went to several of the public hearings when the graduated bill was being discussed," says Sherrill, who is appalled by North Carolina's drop-out rate. "I said, `When we pass that piece of legislation, let's tie no-pass, no-drive to it.'"

It's too early to say if her law is working, Sherrill says. But if a correlation is found, legislation aiming to modify behavior could be the next big trend in driver's license laws affecting teenagers.

Missouri is presently looking at a bill that would allow parents to keep rebellious teens from getting their driver's licenses.

 
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