LOS ANGELES — 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.
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.
• That states require the adult supervising a learner be 21 or older.
"Ten years ago, no state had such passenger restrictions and we watched as teenage drivers alone [in the car] were twice as likely as older drivers to be involved in fatalities," says Kevin Quinlan, chief of the safety advocacy division at the NTSB. Perhaps an even scarier statistic, he says, is that when passengers are added to the car of a 16-year-old driver, they are five times more likely to be involved in a crash.
But advocates of tougher measures for teens on the road say California's measurable success in reducing teen accidents will help sell the idea of similar steps elsewhere.
"Findings show quite conclusively that GDL had its intended effect of reducing teen crashes," says Steven Bloch, senior researcher for the Automobile Club of Southern California. Dr. Bloch's research also showed the laws were associated with a substantial reduction in teen alcohol-related crashes.
Facts like that may sway parents to back the NTSB proposals.
"One of the problems, politically, in pushing these laws has been that parents don't know these facts," says Illinois State Sen. John Cullerton, who has just written stronger GDL legislation for that state. One of the biggest hurdles he says, is that many parents have been waiting until their children reach driving age to let them drive to school, often in car pools.
But Senator Cullerton and other officials say they are boldly encouraged by the comments and experience of both parents and teens in California and elsewhere. Research says that parents here overwhelmingly support the laws because they backup what they already want: more experience and less recreational driving for their kids.
"Every parent I know loves this idea," says Janet Larson, whose daughter Nicole has had her license for about eight months. She says Nicole's first few outings alone were just down the street, or to nearby stores, and that Nicole still does not use freeways. "She needed to build confidence, get used to making turns without people in the car," says Ms. Larson.
One confusion for teen drivers at the moment, say proponents, is that neighboring states often have dramatic variations in restrictions - some from 1 to 5 a.m., and others from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.. Age requirements for passengers are often different as are the licensing ages of drivers.
But overall, say observers, the trend is both clear and consistent - the stronger the restrictions, the fewer the crashes.
"We've seen huge improvements in licensing systems since the days you could get a permit one day and a license the next," says Susan Ferguson of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent research group.
"Giving car keys to their kids is one of the hugest concerns parents ever have. Now we are recognizing dramatic new ways to insure that they will come home every night," she says.