What is the best way to make teen-agers safer drivers? A recent report makes several suggestions: Raise the minimum age for owning a licenses to 18. Eliminate high school driver education courses on the grounds that they encourage licensing at a younger age. And restrict teen driving to day and early evening hours.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by several life insurance companies, makes these suggestions based on several recent studies that come down hard on young drivers.
The research indicates, for instance, that half of all 16- to 19-year-old deaths are associated with car use - a higher proportion than for any other age group. Roughly half of the car-related fatalities involving 16- and 17-year-olds occur between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m.
While everyone agrees on doing everything possible to help young people become safer drivers, the institute's suggestions are highly controversial. Most driver education teachers and administrators count them in the same category as proposals to ban all cars or to license only adults on the theory that roads would then be far safer.
Particularly nettling to many in the auto safety field is the suggestion to scrap all driver education. The institute bases this recommendation a 1980 Yale Center for Health Studies report. It showed a drop in crashes corresponding to a sharp decline in the number getting licenses at 16 and 17 in several Connecticut school districts. The districts had dropped driver education courses for lack of funds in 1976.
The American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, made up of educators and administrators, labels the report ''careless.''
''The institute's own statistics show that it is 18-year-olds (rather than 16 - and 17-year-olds) who have the worst accident record,'' says Dr. William Cushman, executive director of the association.
Dr. Cushman contends that driver education, originally launched to improve driver safety, has raised the age of licensing over time. Once licenses were available to young people in their early teens, driver education effectively moved the age to 16. And as it spread, it prompted many states to raise the eligible age to 18 for teens without training. An estimated 75 to 80 percent of those eligible take it.
Criticism of driver education is aimed more at its tendency to encourage younger drivers to get licenses than at its effectiveness. A three-year pilot project in DeKalb County, Ga., found that among a sizable sample of 16- to 19 -year-olds, those taking the course had significantly better driving records and fewer accidents than a control group of students who did not get the training.
There is currently little movement at the state level to alter the age for drivers licenses. And there appears to be fairly widespread support for the idea that the decision should be made by the family.
''Driver education is a good starting point, but to build their confidence and skill, I rode with my children for several months afterward before I was satisfied they were ready,'' notes Jack Hutter, a father of three teen-agers and a teacher at Northwestern University's Traffic Institute.
''We need much more parental control of children who are between 16 and 18,'' says Harold Boyd, a father of four and teacher of driver education in Oak Park, Ill. ''My kids (when told whether they can or can't have the car) say, 'You're old-fashioned' - I tell them, 'Yeah - but you're still alive.' ''
Other variations on licensing are to have a longer period than the usual four to six weeks for a learner's permit, or a six month to one year probation period for any new license holder.
Many in the auto safety field agree with the theory behind the proposal to restrict teen licenses to daytime driving hours. But they argue that adult drivers have the same percentage of nighttime mishaps. They add that the idea is unenforceable. The AAA's Dr. Kenel says police have a tough enough time trying to enforce speeding violations; they would be hard pressed to differentiate between a 17- and 18-year-old at night without action bordering on harassment.
One area of big trouble for teens and driving: alcohol and drugs. The institute, drawing on University of Michigan research, notes that 14 states have raised the minimum drinking age since 1976 with a significant corresponding improvement in teen driver safety. All driver education courses and many junior high health classes take up the effects of drinking and driving.
But a discussion among driver education teachers at the recent National Safety Council meeting here indicates that the debate over how best to get the message across is still delicate.
''Most alcohol curricula these days stress giving the students all the facts and letting them decide, rather than moralizing,'' observes Edward O'Farrell, a former driver education teacher who now heads that curriculum division in the Chicago Board of Education. ''I personally have some problem with that. Some students need more direction.''
Sharon Heise, a driver education teacher from Decatur, Ill., says tougher enforcement or laws cracking down on those who drive while intoxicated would have the strongest effect on making young people safer drivers.