For many teenagers, obtaining a driver’s license is an exciting moment, a rite of passage into adulthood. Indeed, access to a car can be helpful to both teens and their parents. However, the data on teen driving is of great concern. The National Highway Transit Safety Administration reports that the leading cause of death in 2011 for teens aged 14-18 was car crashes. Over 2,000 teen drivers were involved in fatal car crashes. The research shows that, on the whole, a disturbing level of irresponsibility characterized many teen drivers. 35% of all teenagers who died in car crashes were driving above the speed limit. One out of every five teen drivers who were killed had not even obtained a valid driver’s license. And more than half of teens killed in car accidents were not properly restrained with seat belts.
The Center for Disease Control notes that, per mile driven, teen drivers aged 16-19 are three times more likely to be in a fatal crash than drivers aged 20 and up. Gender also plays a significant role, according to research findings. Male teen drivers are twice as likely as female teen drivers to be involved in fatal crashes. The level of experience was also an indicator of risk, as drivers within their first month of driving were at a much higher risk of crashing than those with more driving experience.
In general, teen drivers tend to drive more recklessly. They are more likely to speed, and more likely to drive in dangerously close proximity to other cars. In addition, compared to other age brackets, teens show the lowest rate of seatbelt usage.
Strategies to Improve Teen Driver Safety
In response to these disturbing trends, most states have introduced laws to reduce the dangers associated with teen driving. Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) programs have been proven to greatly improve road safety. These programs present a period of time through which teen drivers gradually earn greater driving autonomy and rights. Restrictions are put in place at the start, and then slowly eased. The Governors Highway Safety Association reports that most successful GDL programs contain the following three stages:
- Learner Stage
- Intermediate Stage
- Full Privilege Stage
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Road safety experts suggest the following guidelines for each stage: In the Learner stage, teen drivers are exposed to very limited driving experience. Beginning at age 16, for a period of at least six months, teens must practice for thirty to fifty hours with parental-level supervision. The Intermediate Stage should last until age 18 and carries with it two major restrictions: nighttime driving and teen passengers. Drivers between the ages of 16-18 should not be permitted to drive after 9:00 or 10:00 PM. Teen passengers are either completely prohibited, or a maximum of one teen passenger is allowed. Cell phone use is completely banned. After successfully completing these two stages, teen drivers are then granted full legal driving privileges.
Research indicates a significant decrease in car accidents when these policies are enacted. The CDC reports that GDL programs result in as much as a 40% reduction in injuries and fatalities. And note the significant role that parents play in teen driving safety. They recommend close supervision and guidance on the part of parents, as their teens gradually learn how to drive responsibly. In addition, perhaps the most important contribution parents can make is positive role modeling for their teens: obeying the speed limit, refraining from cellphone use, consistent seat belt use, and generally safe driving habits.
New Legislation in New York
Earlier this month, news outlets reported that in an effort to further curb the tragic ramifications of irresponsible teen drivers, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed new legislation. The law would call for a one year suspension penalty for teen drivers who are caught texting while driving. The new legislation raises certain questions: should stiffer penalties for teen texting and driving be introduced, while ignoring the much larger population of older drivers? Is a one year suspension too strict of a penalty? Perhaps the suspension should be even longer? On the other hand, advocates of the new law claim that the stiff penalty will be a strong deterrent to would-be teen distracted drivers, who may be more likely to be on their cellphones. The hope is that intensified legislation coupled with raised public awareness will help minimize the dangers of teen driving.