For teenage drivers in a growing number of states, when Mom or Dad hand over the keys to the car, they're also more likely to be coming along for the ride.
California this week became the latest, and largest, addition to a movement making it tougher for teens to get full-fledged licenses. So-called graduated licensing systems, which include more parent time in the car, are in place or soon will be in 22 states. The goal is to reduce the death and accident rate for young adults on the roadways.
"We're close to the bandwagon effect," says Michael Smith, research psychologist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which wants a more restrictive system implemented in all states.
The lines were long at Department of Motor Vehicle offices throughout California as some young drivers sought to get driving permits the old-fashioned, easier way before July 1, when the new law took effect. But for the rest, the driving rite of passage will be more difficult than it was for their baby boomer parents, even though mobility seems more valued and necessary in the contemporary American household where both parents are increasingly apt to work.
But demographics and lifestyles give way to a grim statistic: Roadway accidents are the No. 1 cause of death for teens. While drivers under the age of 18 make up about 7 percent of the nation's driving population, they're involved in about 14 percent of the accidents. And though the number of teenage fatalities had been declining for a number of years due to higher drinking age limits, it has risen since 1992.
The core ingredients of California's new graduated licensing system:
* Lengthen the amount of time a new driver must hold a permit.
* Require that during the permit period an adult supervise the new driver for 50 hours on the road.
* Follow the permit with a provisional license that requires an adult in the car between midnight and 5 a.m. and whenever there are other passengers under age 20.
* Authorize a full license at 18 after a year of clean driving.
Despite the push by NHTSA, the American Automobile Association, and a number of other organizations, many states remain reluctant to implement the new system.
Iowa rewrote its law earlier this year but encountered some of the resistance that has surfaced in other states, particularly those with a tradition of early driving on the farm.
Iowa state Rep. David Heaton says advocates for changing the law in his state learned from the failures in Kansas and Tennessee. Iowa legislators worked closely with the state's Farm Bureau and other rural interests from the outset and were able to pass legislation in one session.
Iowa's system delays the age at which rural teens with special transportation needs get a license from 14 to 14-1/2 - and introduces a license for others that doesn't become a nonrestrictive license until the driver has a clean driving record for a year. The new law goes into effect Jan. 1, 1999. Other states implementing graduated licensing this year include Illinois, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and Ohio.
The higher accident rate of teens is attributable, in equal parts, to immaturity and inexperience, says Smith of NHTSA. The graduated system is an attempt to improve the early driving education with more adult supervision in the car. The slower progress to an outright license is also intended to increase the maturity and development of novice drivers.
Ezra Hauer, a transportation expert at the University of Toronto, says the question of when people are ready to drive, whether it's 14 or 18, is subjective. "You have to balance their need to drive as a means to socialize and see friends with the risks."
And while Hauer says tougher licensing requirements can reduce accident rates, their application in almost any age category would do the same.