A clear message is emerging from the Blue Ridge highways and urban avenues of North Carolina: Tougher laws for teen drivers can dramatically reduce the number of crashes and fatalities on state roads.
Three years after the Tarheel State put new limits on young drivers - such as restrictions on nighttime driving and the number of passengers they can chauffeur - accidents caused by 16-year-olds have fallen 26 percent and deaths have dropped 29 percent.
The statistics are the first evidence that new graduated-licensing laws are having an effect on teen driving. For states like Florida and Michigan, which have taken bold steps similar to North Carolina's, the figures are being seen as proof of progress. And for other states, which have been watching and waiting, the new data could prove a catalyst for more change.
"It's still early, but it's obvious that these laws are working and that states continue to look into how they can do this," says Melissa Savage, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "Another trend we're seeing is that many of the states that have implemented pieces of these laws are now going back and adding even more restrictions."
Thirty-seven states have already passed some kind of graduated-licensing laws.
Most recently, Oklahoma on Tuesday enacted new restrictions. Also, New Jersey-based Top Driver, the country's largest driving school, this week introduced its most comprehensive driver-education program yet for teens. It features a real-streets class designed by a race-car driver.
Later this year, Michigan is expected to release a three-year in-depth accident study on 16-year-olds. The statistics are believed to be similar to those in the North Carolina study, which was conducted by the University of North Carolina for the period between 1997 and 1999.
Michigan has gone further than many states. It was the first to adopt graduated licensing in 1997, followed shortly by North Carolina and Florida.
"We think [graduated licensing] is a successful program where an extremely positive trend line has developed in reducing both traffic crashes and fatalities among young drivers," says Julie Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Michigan secretary of state.
Before Michigan adopted its strict new procedures, 16-year-olds didn't even need to take a road test. By contrast, they now face a complicated 30-minute road test that 17 percent of rookie drivers failed the first year. Drivers also cannot get their full license until they turn 17.
"If you can teach very good driving skills, it's a behavioral thing that will follow teens their whole lives," says Candice Miller, Michigan's secretary of state."That's what we need, especially as we constantly see more road construction, more road rage, more aggressive driving behavior - the unfortunate negative dynamics in society that manifest themselves today on our roadways."
The new laws and regulations come at a time when experts say 16- and 17-year-olds still have five times as many accidents as older drivers.In fact, teen accidents have continued to climb nationally - even as driving has become safer though improved road and car engineering, as well as tougher DWI and seat-belt laws.
Teen driving patterns
More than any other age group, teens are involved in single-car crashes - and regularly have more passengers in their cars. Alcohol is sometimes a factor, and teens often drive older family cars. Yet the main culprit, researchers say, is simple lack of experience and maturity.The most common teenage crash, experts say, takes place on a curvy two-lane road.
"Things that you see 15- and 16-year-olds doing, they're almost inevitable in terms of their impulsiveness," says Rob Foss, a fellow at the University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center.
As a result, laws generally take into account that 16-year-olds are more inclined to take chances and are less experienced.
Moreover, with many young drivers sent out on the roads without continued parental oversight, laws often also require more adult supervision.
"We hear this every day from parents, who say, 'I want to get Johnny out there driving as quickly as possible, because I have better things to do than chauffeur him all over town like I've been doing for 15 years,' " says Chuck Mai of Oklahoma's American Automobile Association.
Other popular reforms include zero tolerance for alcohol and zero tolerance for traffic tickets.
Teens may see this nationwide trend toward graduated licensing as a huge hassle, changing a time-honored rite of passage, but Mr. Foss believes the laws aren't excessively tough. Instead, he calls the new system a supportive and protective way to cull and train inexperienced drivers.
"Yes, it's a rather dramatic change from what was in place in the past," but it isn't a Draconian measure, Foss says.
Research on teen drivers goes back to 1973.Early licensing reform ideas were eventually picked up by New Zealand and Australia in the late 1980s, two Canadian provinces in the early 1990s, and finally a slew of states in the mid- to late-1990s.
"It was really a dereliction of duty on the part of adults that we didn't get around to doing this decades ago," Foss says.
Who's against it
Many states have had little trouble passing at least some form of graduated licensing. But there have been some concerns. Primary opposition has come from state motor-vehicle departments, which have complained about the costs of revamping their protocols.
Farm groups have also lobbied for special licenses for kids who work on rural family farms. In states such as Michigan, Colorado, and Wyoming, legislators have made such deals.
The states are still closing loopholes, though. Michigan discovered that many of these privileges were going to children attending distant private schools, not farm workers.
To be sure, teens have groused about the new regulations.
"But in news articles I'm reading here, even teenagers are realizing the value of this," says Ms. Pierce. "It really can be a scary thing to drive a 2,000-pound automobile at 65 m.p.h. Teens may not always voice it, but I think many may appreciate the fact that they now get some extra training and practice."
Dennis Whorley, chief inspector at the Cary, N.C., Department of Motor Vehicles, says the new laws have made him feel better.
"I worry less about [new drivers] and I can enjoy the process more," says Mr. Whorley. "It's always an exciting time, and they should be excited. The license marks yet another approach to adulthood and the responsibilities that go along with it."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society