A graduated driver’s license law in Kansas that went into effect in January 2010 has helped sharply reduce the number of accidents involving teenage drivers, safety experts said, as younger drivers are getting more practice before being turned free on the highways.
Kansas Department of Transportation records show the number of accidents involving drivers 14 through 16 years old dropped from more than 5,000 in 2004 and 2005 to fewer than 3,000 last year.
The Wichita Eagle reported the number of fatalities involving drivers in that age group went from an average of 22 a year from 2004 through 2009 to 15 in 2010 and nine in 2011.
“I think that’s exactly the outcome we expected,” said Suzanne Wikle, director of policy and research for Kansas Action for Children, a nonprofit group that pushed for the law.
Increased seat belt usage among teen drivers also has had a major impact on the statistics, said Jim Hanni, spokesman for AAA Kansas.
“We’ve definitely made some wonderful strides in a very short period of time,” he said.
KDOT traffic safety chief Pete Bodyk said the number of accidents involving young drivers was trending downward even before the graduated licensing law went into effect. He said other laws passed by the Kansas Legislature over the years, including a 2007 law that required 14- to 17-year-olds to wear seat belts, also have helped.
The graduated license law carries two major provisions designed to increase the amount of supervision a teenage driver receives before getting an unrestricted license.
The first requires all teenage drivers to have a learner’s permit for 12 months before obtaining a restricted or unrestricted license. A restricted license allows unsupervised driving to and from work or school.
A 16-year-old who gets a full license is prohibited during the first six months from using a cellphone while driving, having more than one non-sibling minor passenger, and driving after 9 p.m. except to and from work or school.
“Age is a factor; there’s no question about that,” Hanni said. “But of the two — age and inexperience — inexperience is the greatest factor” in predicting which young drivers will have accidents.
Hanni said an increase in seat belt use, spurred by a program called Seatbelts Are For Everyone, or SAFE, has been a big factor in teen driving safety.
The program, which started in Crawford County in 2008, asks students to sign cards pledging to always wear seat belts. Participants are eligible for monthly $25 gift card drawings, with grand prizes awarded to schools with the highest compliance rate and the biggest increase in seat belt usage.
David Corp, a retired Kansas Highway Patrol trooper who helped launch the program, said compliance rates at participating schools has risen, on average, from 73.7 percent to 82 percent.