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Teens may get the car ... but also an occupancy limit

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 18, 2002


For teenagers, it's life's most crucial rite of passage, second only to birth itself. For parents and law enforcement, it's often a real-life installment of "Fear Factor." The occasion: when a teen gets a driver's license.

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In the same laminated wallet card where youth see "escape" and "deliverance," adults see "responsibility" and "liability." Indeed, teen drivers are the leading cause of death for 15-20-year-olds in the US.

Over the past decade, concerns over teen-driving fatalities have led a few states to change requirements for novice drivers, such as limiting passenger numbers and the time of day they can drive.

In California, new drivers are forbidden to carry teen passengers for the first six months. Result? A 40 percent drop between 1998 and 2000 in the number of crashes involving 16-year-old drivers.

Even teenagers are starting to take a sober-eyed view.

"I don't think 16-year-olds are mature enough to make decisions about driving," says Leo Livshetz, a 16-year-old in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "This law has given juveniles a bit more time to get used to handling cars without all their peers jammed into the car."

Indeed, the seven states that enacted the toughest laws report similar successes.

Now, a federal agency wants the rest of the country to implement similarly tough measures. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is lobbying states to adopt stringent requirements for teen drivers.

"We know that strong, enforced, graduated-licensing laws will prevent countless deaths of teen drivers on America's highways," says Carol Carmody, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia already have some form of so-called GDL laws (short for graduated drivers license). They are aimed at regulating numbers of teen passengers and nighttime driving for a new driver's first year or two, giving teens more time to learn under supervision.

But those few states limiting the number of passengers alongside teen drivers to one, or none, for up to six months (California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin) have had the biggest turnaround in fatalities and injuries.

In Colorado, for instance, fatalities involving 16-year-old drivers have dropped 45 percent from a year ago. And in North Carolina, injuries and fatalities for such drivers have dropped 29 percent overall, including 49 percent at night.

Armed with these and other statistics, the NTSB used a Nov. 6 meeting of the world's major researchers on the licensing of young drivers to launch its countrywide push for even stronger legislation. Accordingly, the NTSB - a federal investigative agency with advisory discretion but no regulatory powers - is recommending two new safety regulations to states.

• That all states restrict young novice drivers with provisional licenses from carrying more than one passenger under the age of 20 (unless the driver is accompanied by an adult 21 years or older) for their first six months.