Special Report: The Dangers of Teen Driving

Car crashes are the No. 1 killer of teens. It's time to take action.

By Joseph K. Vetter with Fran Lostys from Reader's Digest | August 2008

“You don’t suddenly become a good driver when you turn 16,” Nason says. “We need to ease teens into a lifelong habit of good driving.”

That’s the goal of graduated driver licensing laws, which impose restrictions before teens earn a full license. An ideal law would set the minimum age for a permit at 16, limit passengers to one, ban cell phones, prohibit driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., and not allow a full license until age 18.

These laws make sense. A recent study by Johns Hopkins University for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that a tough phase-in law could decrease deaths among 16-year-old drivers by 38 percent. “It’s clear that giving young drivers more time behind the wheel with supervision makes a big difference,” says Susan Baker, the study’s coauthor.

That was the case in Georgia, where a graduated licensing law slashed fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers by 37 percent over five years and cut speeding-related fatal crashes among the same age group by nearly half. The law also imposes stiff penalties — including having a license taken away for up to a year-for speeding, reckless driving, and other serious errors.

Currently, 47 states have phase-in laws, but few are as effective as they could be. Only eight set the minimum age for a permit at 16. Fewer than ten prohibit driving after 10 p.m. And only 12 have strict limits on passengers.
Kansas State Senator Phil Journey pushed for a bill to impose nighttime, passenger, and cell phone restrictions on teen drivers, but it failed in his state’s House of Representatives. He says the costs of refusing to act are obvious: “Statistically, we know that somebody’s going to leave home and is not going to survive because this bill didn’t become law.”

Find out how to lobby for tough laws in your state.

The main obstacle is the belief that stricter measures impinge on parents’ right to decide when and with whom their kids drive. The reasons for the complaints vary: Some parents want their teens to run errands unaccompanied; others want their kids to drive a farm truck as soon as possible. (That’s what sank the Kansas bill.)

Vermont State Representative Kathy Lavoie, the mother of two teens, supports some limitations but balks at a nighttime restriction that would prevent kids from driving to hunting grounds in the early morning, which teens in her state enjoy. “When it comes to an infringement on parental rights, I get nervous,” she says.

Nason of the traffic safety administration has heard these objections before. “Fear of the ‘nanny state’ always rears its head,” she says. “But a car crash doesn’t just affect the person in the car. It affects the people in the car they hit.” Add in the costs to law enforcement and health care, she notes, and it’s hard to argue against putting society’s interests ahead of parents’ rights. In a recent study, AAA found that teen crashes cost the rest of us more than $34 billion annually.

Bradford Hill, the Massachusetts state representative who sponsored legislation that cut speeding by 33 percent and reduced serious-injury crashes by more than 40 percent, said most parents in his state support the law. “They say, ‘I’m so glad these changes were made,’ ” he says.

Some teens feel the same way. In New York, 18-year-old David Mangano of White Plains sees the value in his state’s law that limits teen passengers to two. “If you have a lot of people in the car, it’s really hectic,” he says, “so it’s nice to have that restriction.”

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