Better ways to help teens drive safely

Over the past decade, many states have imposed tougher rules on teens seeking a driver's license, such as raising the legal driving age. Stricter rules do indeed reduce teen road fatalities, by up to one-fifth, according to one study. But does raising the minimum age alone really help teens drive more safely?

New data suggest not.

A study released Monday by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore shows that a combination of factors, and not simply a higher driving age, significantly reduces fatal accidents. The study looked at states with five of seven restrictions on teen drivers (including higher minimum driving ages) and saw an 18 percent reduction in fatal crashes for that age group compared with states having no such special restrictions. The decline was steeper, 21 percent, in states with six or more restrictions.

By the end of 2004, 41 states and the District of Columbia had "graduated license" programs that include a learner's permit, an intermediate license with restrictions, and a full, unrestricted license.

These programs impose such conditions as nighttime curfews, passenger limits, and driver's education requirements. Some states have also increased the length of time teens must keep their learner's permits. These conditions have reduced fatal car crashes among teens – the leading cause of death for this age group. Clearly, a combination of restrictions is the right way to go for states to turn out responsible teen drivers.

A higher minimum driving age can help ensure that teens will be more responsible behind the wheel – but only if linked to other requirements. A higher age eligibility can be difficult for many parents to accept – in part because an extra driver in the family can help shoulder the burden of running errands or chauffeuring younger siblings. In Massachusetts, for instance, many parents protested part of a recent legislative bill to raise the age for intermediate licenses from 16-1/2 to 17-1/2. The bill also imposed stricter education and experience requirements. The move to hike the age eligibility was dropped due to the protest, and the bill was passed.

In New Jersey, young people can apply for a learner's permit at age 16 but can't apply to get an intermediate license for a year. But nearly half of all states allow 15-year-olds to obtain learner's permits. In some rural states where farm or ranch life may necessitate driving, teens can receive them at 14.

Differences in population, traffic, and residents' need to drive should and do affect how states determine when young people ought to begin driving. But more states should consider raising to one year the time that teens must keep their learner's permits. The extra supervised driving time would allow young people to further improve their skills.

Some argue that the driving age should be raised simply because older teens are often more mature in their judgments. But maturity can't make up for lack of experience.

More states need to allow teens additional time to practice driving with adult oversight and by themselves before most of them leave home for a life on their own.

And the more experience they get while close to home, the more likely young people will drive safely.

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