The problem with teenage drivers

Reforms take a deliberate approach to improving safety
By BRIAN C JONES  |  August 20, 2007
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Teenagers, especially males, are terrible drivers.
 
They drive fewer miles than do adults, but have far higher crash rates. Auto crashes are the leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-olds. And the careless ones menace everyone else unlucky enough to be on the road with them.
 
As a result, states have developed a savvy licensing system that takes into account teenagers’ biology and development.
 
These evolving licensing reforms are in contrast to the abrupt process by which Rhode Island lowered to 17 the age at which young offenders are treated as adults — a decision based on budget savings, not science.
 
“Sixteen- to 19-year-olds have four times the crash risk of drivers just a little older,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The twin reasons, he says, are immaturity and lack of driving experience. “Immaturity comes into play with risk-taking, feeling invincible, thinking nothing bad will happen to me,” Rader says. So teenagers are more likely to speed, tailgate, drink alcohol, and take risks that older drivers have learned to avoid.
 
The response, beginning in the 1990s, have been “graduated drivers license” (GDL) programs, which allow novices to practice driving, but slows down their ability to get full driving rights.
 
Between 16 and 18, would-be drivers need their parents’ approval, they must get driver education, and they have to suffer through two restricted levels of licenses that require an experienced driver in the front seat, limit teenage passengers, and forbid cell phone use.
 
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported this summer that since the GDL movement began, national crash rates have plummeted, with a 40 percent reduction between 1996 and 2005 for 16-year-olds, 25 percent for 17-year-olds and 15 to 19 percent for drivers aged 18.
 
The institute’s study didn’t find a direct cause-and-effect between the improved record and the GDL system — only that both occurred at the same time.
 
Janis E. Loiselle, administrator of the state Department of Transportation’s highway safety office, says Rhode Island fatal statistics have been up and down for the years for which there are consistent statistics.
 
In 2002, there were 20 drivers, aged 16 to 20, involved in fatal accidents, a number that was as high as 22 the following year and as low as 13 in 2006.
 
Loiselle believes those statistics would be worse without the licensing approach, and she notes that new factors — the distraction posed by cell phones and now by text messaging — have complicated the picture in the meantime.
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