Teen Driving Curbs Show Results
By Nick Timiraos, Special to Stateline
UPDATED - The number of automobile deaths involving 15-to-17 year olds has declined following teen driving restrictions phased in over the past decade in nearly all 50 states, multiple studies by traffic safety and transportation research groups show.
States with graduated drivers licenses, which extend driving privileges in steps - a learner's permit, a provisional license and a permanent license - reduced traffic deaths for 15-17 year olds nationwide by 5.6 percent, according to a May 2005 study by Thomas Dee, an associate professor of economics at Swarthmore College.
The study found that more restrictive policies could cut fatalities by 19 percent. "States with the strictest policies were the most effective in reducing fatalities," Dee told Stateline.org .
As the ranks of teen drivers increase - 17.5 million teens will be eligible to drive by the end of the decade, an increase of 1.3 million since 2000, according to a USA Today study - more states have put safety concerns ahead of teens' desire to hit the road with their friends.
Forty-six states have adopted GDL policies, including six passed or enacted this year in Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Montana, Oklahoma and Wyoming.
Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky and North Dakota are the only states without three-tiered licensing systems.
Florida became the first state to pass such a law in 1996. By 1999, 27 states had them and by 2004, 38 did. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety began publicizing the dangers of allowing unsupervised new drivers to receive full, immediate driving privileges. Its studies showed:
- 16 and 17 year-old drivers have the highest crash rate per mile of any age group, and are more than three times likely to crash than 18 and 19 year-old drivers.
- The crash rate triples for 16 and 17-year-old drivers at night.
- The crash rate increases five times over when teens drive unsupervised with three teen passengers.
Consequently, learners' permits mandate minimum hours of supervised driving with parents and provisional licenses usually include restrictions on the most risky behaviors associated with teen driving - limiting the number of underage passengers and the nighttime driving hours of young drivers. Nine states, including seven this year, also banned cell phone use for drivers with a provisional license.
Other studies have validated the restrictions on teen driving:
- In a study due out later this year, researchers at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Berkeley credited California's GDL law with reducing fatalities by 16-year-old drivers by 11 percent and with reducing the number of teen passengers by 31 percent.
- A 2004 study by the California Department of Motor Vehicles found that the state's passenger and curfew restrictions had reduced fatalities by 55 and injuries by 816.
- Researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that Michigan's had cut traffic deaths from 154 in 1996 to 111 four years later. Adjusted for population-wide trends, the study concluded that the crash risk had been reduced by 25 percent.
- A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that fatal teen crashes had declined by 26 percent between 1993 and 2003.
These numbers shouldn't come as a great surprise, said Rob Foss, a senior research scientist at the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina. His state has seen a 5 percent drop in fatal crashes for 16 and 17-year-olds.
By limiting the number of passengers in a young driver's car, states automatically lower the number of possible injuries and fatalities, Foss said.
In a different comparison between North Carolina, which has a teen driving curfew begin at 9 p.m., and Michigan, which has a midnight curfew, Foss said that North Carolina has further reduced teen crashes simply by keeping teens of the roads later at night.
Rural Western states, like Montana and Wyoming, where mobility had been a greater concern, have been more resistant to restricting when teens could drive, said Jim Wright, a highway safety specialist at the National Transportation Highway Safety Administration . But as studies increasingly show the benefits restrictions can have on reducing deaths, "more legislators feel confident now that they'll have support for these measures."
Sen. Kim Gillan (D) sponsored a GDL bill in each of the last four sessions in Montana, with two attempts failing to pass the Legislature and one earning a veto from then-Gov. Judy Martz (R).
She attributed the success of her attempt this year to changing attitudes in the state. Wyoming, a state she said Montana often pares itself to, had passed a bill one month earlier.
"People became more aware of not only Montana but also nationwide trends in teen accidents and the fact that other states were taking these common sense restrictions," Gillan said, noting that car accidents were the leading killer of teens in Montana.
Arizona Rep. Lucy Mason (R) said she grew tired of hearing about teens killed on long stretches of the two-lane highways in her rural district north of Phoenix, so she introduced a GDL law this year.
"I carry a lot of these stories from parents with me and how they have lost a child," she said.
The bill died after concerns that it would limit parents' rights to determine when their children can drive, but Mason said that won't deter her from pursuing the law again next year.
Arizona was the only state to receive a ranking of "poor" in a state-by-state analysis of teen driving restrictions by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the IIHS, lauded the benefits of GDL programs but warned that license restrictions weren't a panacea.
"It hasn't solved the problem by any stretch of the imagination, but GDL has been the only thing that has shown that it can reduce teen crashes at least somewhat," he said.
A National Safety Council ranking of states with the highest percentage of traffic fatalities involving at least one 16-20 year-old driver underscores Rader's admonition. The NSC named North Carolina the worst state for fatal crashes, but the Highway Safety Research Council's Foss disputed the finding, saying the NSC's methodology was flawed.
John Ulczycki, the director of transportation safety group at the NSC, said that the rankings are published to illustrate that no matter what a state's policies may be on graduated drivers' licenses, parents have the greatest responsibility for ensuring safe driving rules for their kids.
"We want to make parents aware throughout the country that even though their state may not have graduated drivers' licenses in place, but they can still take steps to make sure their kids have safe driving practices," he said.