States addressing widening tragedy of teen driver deaths

By | April 3, 2006

A new report uncovers the wider tragedy of fatal car crashes involving teen drivers and is putting new impetus behind state efforts to limit passengers in teenagers’ cars.

Over the past decade, nearly two out of three victims in fatal car crashes involving 15- to 17-year-old drivers were the passengers of the teen drivers, occupants in other cars or pedestrians, according to a study by the American Automobile Association.

Although state restrictions on teenage drivers over the past decade have reduced fatal car crashes, AAA and other safety advocates now are pressing lawmakers to place greater limits on novice drivers, especially in the 17 states that have no limits on the number of young passengers that can ride with a new teenage driver. The group also is urging parents to impose restrictions, even if state law doesn’t.

Of the 30,917 people killed in accidents involving 15- to 17-year-old drivers from 1995 to 2004, 11,177 were the young drivers themselves. Another 9,847 were passengers of teen drivers — and 70 percent of those were under 18 years old, according to AAA’s analysis. The remaining 9,893 fatalities were people riding in other cars or pedestrians.

Parental authority
Legislators in some states are reluctant to strengthen passenger restrictions, saying that it interferes with a parent’s authority, said Elizabeth Vermette, director of state relations for AAA. “The point [of the study] is to show policy-makers that it’s a problem for everyone,” she said.

Since 1996, 46 states have adopted graduated drivers licensing, which increases driving privileges in three steps — a learner’s permit, a provisional license and a permanent license. In 2005, California, Colorado, Connecti-cut, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Wyoming all created or strengthened graduated drivers license requirements. Those laws are credited with a 5.6 percent decline in deaths of 15- to 17-year-old drivers, according to a 2005 study by professor Thomas Dee of Swarthmore College. States with the highest standards could reduce fatalities by 19 percent, he found.

But there is no intermediate license in Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky and North Dakota. Plus there are numerous variations in the requirement of states that do have a three-tiered license, said Jonathan Adkins, of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “Lawmakers want to do the right thing on [graduated drivers licensing], but there’s no universal agreement on what that is,” he said.

In fact, no state has fully implemented all of the recommendations for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s “optimal” program, which sets 16 years as the minimum age for a learner’s permit that must be held for 6 months and requires 30 to 50 hours of supervised driving. The IIHS also recommends an intermediate stage, lasting until age 18, that limits nighttime driving and restricts the number of minor-age passengers.

AAA is urging states to fill the gaps in existing laws. It has launched a new “Parent to Parent” program to encourage adults to enforce strict road rules.

“Parents should not allow their teen to ride with other teen drivers. It’s tempting to be lured by the convenience of having other options for getting kids to and from school and practices, but the risks are just too great,” said Robert L. Darbelnet, AAA president.

The states that do not limit the number of passengers for teen drivers are: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Dakota.

Eric Kelderman is a www.stateline.org staff writer. Reprinted with permission from www.stateline.org.

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