CHICAGO — Parents braced for the day when their teenagers first take the wheel can rest a little easier thanks to a national trend toward tougher licensing for young drivers.
States are making it harder for teens to obtain and retain full licenses because this group of drivers, through inexperience and immaturity, accounts for a disproportionate number of accidents, studies show.
Overall, the number of states with some form of graduated licensing has doubled to 20 in the 1990s. Illinois, Michigan, and three other states have passed or proposed "graduated licensing" laws since 1996.
The laws increase the privileges of new drivers in several stages over two or three years, as the drivers get older and gain experience. This differs from simply giving new drivers a permit and then handing them a full-fledged license a short time later.
"There is a very compelling argument that graduated licensing will help save young lives," says Cathy Ritter, spokeswoman for Illinois Secretary of State George Ryan, who announced the new driving plan last month.
Nationally, traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Although teenagers make up only 7 percent of the licensed driving population, they represent 13 percent of the drunken drivers and a quarter of the speeders who are involved in fatal crashes.
These young drivers, who are twice as likely as other age groups to have car accidents of any kind, according to statistics, are also being targeted because their numbers are projected to increase in coming years.
"I think there is a growing awareness of the problem and a lessening of the laissez-faire attitude that boys will be boys," says Jim Reed, program principal for transportation at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Denver.
Graduated licensing generally works in three stages:
* The learning permit. Youths aged 15 or 16 must undergo supervised practice driving with parents or other adults for a minimum of several months, pass a driver's education course, and remain conviction-free.
* The intermediate license. Drivers aged 16 or 17 must complete more hours of adult-supervised practice driving while incurring no moving violations.
* Full licensing. At about age 18, drivers who have passed the earlier stages are fully licensed but are subject for one or two years to harsher penalties for traffic violations.
In some states, the licensing plan for teens also includes curfews on driving at night, stricter seat-belt requirements, restrictions on the number of passengers, and zero tolerance for alcohol consumption.
Graduated licensing has been effective in reducing teen driving deaths, according to studies in California, Oregon, and New Zealand, where such laws have been in place for several years.
The policy, along with stricter laws on seat belts and drunken driving, has helped reduce total motor-vehicle deaths in the United States by 6 percent, from 44,600 in 1990 to 41,800 in 1995, according to a study to be released soon by the NCSL, "Reducing Crash Casualties and Costs: Traffic Safety Challenges for State Legislatures."
An important goal of the graduated-licensing laws is to enlist the authority and experience of parents to help ensure that teenagers drive safely.
For example, several states now require that a parent or a responsible adult - rather than anyone with a valid license - supervise teen drivers.
"Before you could have a 15-year-old learning to drive, and the licensed driver was a 16-year-old, so it was basically a peer situation," says Mr. Reed.
The tougher laws, however, have drawn complaints from teens and some adults.
"Naturally, a lot of kids are protesting. They expect to get the license when they turn 16," says Penny Giffen, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state in Michigan, where a graduated licensing law took effect Jan. 1.
"Some parents say they don't have time to do the supervising," she adds.
In rural areas, farmers have voiced concern that their 14-year-olds will no longer be able to operate tractors. But the laws usually grant exemptions for such cases, Reed says.