Safer Teen Drivers

Automobile accidents are the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year-olds in the United States. That sobering fact, from the National Center for Health Statistics, should put every teen, teen parent, and driver on alert.

According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), 8,666 persons in the US were killed in 2003 in car crashes involving a teen driver, or about 20 percent of all traffic deaths.

Given their large populations, California and Texas lead the states in the sheer number of fatalities involving teen drivers. But tragically, many teens have been in traffic accidents in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area recently, putting the issue in the national press. Since September, car crashes involving teen drivers in D.C.'s suburbs have killed 17 people.

Other statistics show teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate hazardous situations, especially speeding. Automobile manufacturers have a responsibility here: Far too many car commercials glorify speed.

Teens also are more likely to drive after consuming alcohol or drugs, and to run red lights. And they have the lowest seat-belt usage rates.

One big distraction for young drivers is having peers as passengers. The risk of them crashing goes up with each additional teen passenger, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Added to that distraction are cellphones as well as CD and DVD players.

These statistics strongly suggest that more states ought to have graduated driver's licensing (GDL) programs - where beginning drivers typically first get a learner's permit and then drive with supervision. That's followed by an intermediate license that, among other things, restricts the number of teen passengers and limits night driving before an applicant can get a full license. That last requirement is controversial though, because it can work against employment.

Still, GDLs allow time for new drivers to master road skills. According to the IIHS, 35 states (and the District of Columbia) have a GDL program. But many of them need strengthening. Indeed, the Institute gives only eight states (and Washington) a "good" rating for their GDL programs.

The benefits have proven to far outweigh the costs and disadvantages. In Florida, a GDL program for drivers under 18 was implemented in 1996. After being in place a full year, the state recorded a 9 percent drop in fatal and injury crashes among 15- to 17-year-olds. Oregon estimates its administrative costs for a GDL program at $150,000, but with $11 million in benefits.

Teen drivers must take the adult responsibility of driving a car more seriously. But adults also must act quickly to put stronger driver safety programs in place.

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