Teen Driver Tune-Up: September 2009
A move is underway to impose national standards on teen drivers.
By Melissa Savage
In the early morning of Dec. 2, 2006, teenager Reid Hollister and his two passengers were making their way home on a rain-soaked, three-lane highway. Hollister had a year of driving experience under his belt but was traveling a little too fast for the unfamiliar road. He missed a curve and overcorrected, slamming into a guardrail. Hollister died at the scene.
In the year leading up to this crash, his parents followed the Connecticut graduated driver’s licensing law. They served as co-pilots in the family car as their son logged hours of practice driving, including several trips on less traveled roads so he could gain experience in a safer environment. After getting his license, his parents insisted on knowing where he was going and how long he would be there. They took the keys away when Reid broke the rules.
After the crash, Reid’s dad, Tim, thought about how his son had been taught to drive. He and his wife had followed all the advice offered under the graduated licensing law. What more could they have done?
Tim Hollister was not the only one questioning the law. A deadly string of teen crashes in 2007 led Governor M. Jodi Rell to create a task force to look at Connecticut’s teen driving law. She wanted recommendations on ways to keep teens safe on the roads.
The panel worked quickly, taking only five months from the first meeting in December 2007 to fashion a new teen driving law the governor was able to sign in April 2008. The new law requires parents to attend a class on teen driving laws before their child can take the exam, doubled behind-the-wheel training from 20 to 40 hours, increased fines and penalties associated with violating teen driving laws and added an hour to the nighttime restrictions.
Even with the new law, Hollister says parents have to take responsibility.
“Parents and families are so busy these days that they often choose convenience over safety,” he says. “I would caution against that. Parents should pay full attention to their teen’s skills and abilities. And only after careful consideration give them the keys.”
Connecticut Not Alone
Connecticut isn’t the only state looking to keep teen drivers, their passengers and other motorists safe by enacting stricter teen licensing laws. Since the mid-1990s state legislatures have passed a slew of bills aimed at teen drivers. In the last three years alone 32 states have passed 80 teen driving bills.
Responding to new research, several state legislatures have limited the number of teen passengers allowed in cars driven by teens, restricted nighttime driving, and prohibited cell phone use by teens learning to drive.
These laws have reduced the number of teens killed and injured in crashes. “When it comes to teen drivers, lots of progress has been made in the last 10 years,” says Maryland Delegate Bill Bronrott. “State laws have helped better prepare teens for the task of driving, and many states have added provisions to current laws when they needed to. Progress has been good, but not great.”
This slow pace of change has led many insurance companies and traffic safety advocacy groups to support a push at the federal level to pass the STANDUP Act, which would require states to pass uniform teen driving laws. Sponsored by U.S. Representatives Tim Bishop of New York, Michael Castle of Delaware and Chris Van Hollen Jr. of Maryland, the act would establish minimum federal requirements for state teen driving laws. States would have three years to implement the required provisions based on recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board.
If they don’t comply within three years, states would lose highway construction funds. If a state later decides to comply, the money would be given as long as the state comes into compliance within three years of refusal.
A State-Federal Dilemma
This isn’t the first time Congress has stepped in on traffic safety issues. In the mid-1980s, for example, Congress established 21 as the minimum drinking age in an effort to curb underage drinking and driving.
“They stepped in on commercial driver’s licenses for truckers to keep the motoring public safe. They should consider the same thing for teen drivers,” says Judie Stone with Advocates for Highway Safety. “It’s not that the states aren’t doing anything. They are. It’s just that this is such a big problem, killing more than 5,000 people each year, and we have a ready-made solution. We should do something to close the gaps in state laws.”
Teen driving laws vary considerably by state. In Idaho, teens can enter the learner’s permit stage when they turn 14 and a half and are able to drive restriction-free when they turn 16. In Connecticut, teens can’t enter the learner’s phase until they turn 16 and aren’t able to drive restriction-free until age 18.
Research over the years has shown that the teen brain isn’t fully developed and learning dangerous tasks like driving can require years of practice.
“It’s a complex task, especially for teens. Graduated driving laws give them the time, support and structure to learn how to drive safely,” says Justin McNaull with the American Automobile Association. “These laws are the most effective and proven step government can take to save teen lives.”
So far this year, at least 38 states have considered legislation to make changes to current teen driving laws. Kansas and Arkansas made significant changes. New Jersey passed a new law requiring teen drivers to have specially marked license plates, a first in the country.
Thinking back to his days as a paramedic and some of the crash scenes he witnessed, Nevada Senator Dennis Nolan, chair of the NCSL Transportation Committee, appreciates the need for traffic safety laws. In his mind having the federal government force states to pass certain traffic safety laws is “a double-edged sword.”
“On the one hand, the federal government is holding our money over our heads. On the other hand, traffic safety laws are an easy way to save lives,” he says. “But most states are passing these laws and making progress and they are doing so in ways that make sense for their individual state, not using a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Although traffic safety groups recognize that states have been active in this area, they feel like now is the time to make a move at the federal level.
“It makes sense to do it right now since Congress is gearing up to reauthorize the federal transportation bill. States have moved on this issue, it’s not that they’ve been sitting around doing nothing,” says Bronrott. “But the STANDUP Act will help speed up the process and get the states that need to make the changes to do so.”
He acknowledges this is a top down approach, but thinks in this situation it’s needed.
“These deaths are preventable. We can stop this carnage and we should,” says Bronrott. “The federal government makes me buckle up when I fly. Why shouldn’t it take action to save lives?”
Melissa Savage tracks traffic safety issues for NCSL.
No. 1 Killer of teens
Nationally, nearly 78,000 people have been killed in crashes involving teen drivers since 1999. In 2007, motor vehicle crashes killed:
- Nearly 3,200 young drivers (age 15 to 20).
- More than 2,000 passengers riding with young drivers.
- More than 1,800 people in other vehicles.
- More than 600 pedestrians, bicyclists and others not in vehicles.
In 2007, 26 percent of young drivers killed in crashes had blood alcohol concentrations of .08 or higher, and 20.5 percent of young drivers involved in fatal crashes had previous speeding convictions. Teen drivers have a fatality rate four times the rate of drivers between ages 25 and 69. Sixteen-year-old drivers have a crash rate three times higher than 17-year-olds, five times greater than 18-year-olds, and twice that of 85-year-olds.
The estimated economic cost of police-reported crashes involving drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 was $40.8 billion in 2002.