Massachusetts considers raising the driving age to curb car accidents among teens

Youths couldn't get licenses until they're 17-1/2 - the strictest age requirement in any state except New Jersey.

After a string of high-profile fatal car crashes involving teen drivers, Massachusetts lawmakers are working to add new speed bumps to getting a license.

Their aim: Make teens wait one more year - until they are 17-1/2 - to take their driver's test. Other states are considering tougher restrictions on young drivers, from curfews to extra driver's education, but the Bay State proposal still under consideration would make the wait here the longest in the country.

Most experts agree that inexperience behind the wheel contributes to more accidents among teens. Although young drivers comprise only 7 percent of all drivers, 15 percent of drivers in fatal crashes are between ages 15 and 20.

Whether immaturity is a key factor is more questionable, experts say.

"Raising the licensing age will have a net benefit for the state of Massachusetts; maturity helps to lower your crash rate," says David Preusser, a Connecticut-based highway safety evaluator whose clients include the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But he says increased supervision in the first few months of licensure, during which his research shows accident rates spike, will better ensure safety. "If all you do is increase the age, [accidents during] those first few months of driving will just come at a later time."

In the past decade state legislatures have shied away from raising the driving age. Parents balk at additional months shuttling their children to extracurricular activities or work; a set of keys at age 16, meanwhile, is a celebrated rite of passage for teens.

Instead officials have toughened graduated licensing systems that phase teens in as drivers and provide more supervision.

Massachusetts already has a tough graduated system in place. Teens can get their learner permits at age 16, and do not get full licensure until age 18. Until then, they cannot drive between midnight and 5 a.m., and young, new drivers cannot carry passengers younger than 18, other than family members, unless supervised.

Still, three of every ten 16-year-old drivers will be in a serious crash, according to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.

The debate here is an effort to make the graduated system even tougher. State Rep. Bradford Hill (R) of Ipswich, wants to increase driver's education courses and punishments for violators of junior operator laws. But he is against increasing the age requirements, which would make the state the strictest in the US behind New Jersey, where currently teens must wait until they turn 17 to drive unsupervised.

His constituents, he says, worry about sending their children to college without sufficient practice. He also warns of an unintended consequence: Currently only those under age 18 must take driver's education classes. Raising the age to 17-1/2 might be an incentive to bypass the course. "All they have to do is wait six months to get their licenses," he says.

That, say many, is counterproductive because increasing education requirements is what young drivers need most - on the road experience in a supervised, low-risk environment.

Some teenagers say they are upset by the proposal. "Just because [an accident] happened to one, it doesn't mean we are all like that," says Darren Hairston, 16, of Somerville, Mass. He got his permit in February, and is aiming for his license by August - which he says will help him get to his job.

Driving instructors have also criticized the measure, which would delay by six months the age at which teens could get their permits to 16-1/2, up from 16. Teen drivers are not less safe because they are young, says David Leung, who owns D & D Auto School in Boston. A third of his clients are teens, he says, and many would benefit from more hours behind the wheel, practicing at large intersections and amidst heavy traffic.

The proposal would double the time they must drive with a learner's permit.

Still, many say they welcome more research on whether maturity and judgment are underdeveloped among teen drivers, making them more likely to display risky behavior, such as speeding or passing other vehicles inappropriately.

Among 16- to 20-year-olds, the fatality rate in motor vehicles crashes was twice the rate for all ages in 2002.

"There is some argument that if you can delay licensure, you have a more mature kid, but the whole discussion about it nationally is really premature," says Barbara Harsha, of the Governors Highway Safety Association. "It is not something that should be discouraged either."

Some teens agree with increasing the age restrictions. Regine Paulynice, 16, of Somerville says her mom won't let her start driving until she turns 18. "I think it's a good thing. Most kids do go crazy," she says. "They don't care what happens."

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