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Editorial: Rise in teen driver deaths warrants review of laws

Mar. 03, 2013 @ 11:05 PM

For nearly a decade, it appeared that tougher requirements for teens to get their driver's licenses were making a big difference in terms of safety.

From 2000 to 2010, the number of 16-year-old drivers who were killed in traffic accidents on the nation's roads fell by nearly two-thirds and the number of 17-year-old drivers who died dropped by more than half, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Those reductions were far more sizable than the 25 percent reduction for drivers older than 17 during the same period.

A reasonable conclusion for that marked improvement was that graduated driver license programs enacted in nearly all states were having the intended effect. GDL programs phase in driving privileges for new teen drivers as they gain experience behind the wheel. They usually involve a learner stage that involves a minimum amount of supervised driving time, an intermediate stage with some expanded privileges that still might set limits on number of passengers in a car and night-time driving, and a final stage with full privileges.

Unfortunately, the improving trend from the early part of this century has been interrupted, the Governors Highway Safety Association, or GHSA, reported recently.

In 2011 the number of 16- and 17-year-old drivers who were killed rose slightly and in the first half of 2012 was on a pace to increase 19 percent more, according to preliminary data released last month. Twenty-five states reported increased fatalities, including West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, and 17 showed decreases.

The GHSA suggests that two factors may be at play for this reversal. One is that an improving economy generally means young motorists can afford to log more miles behind the wheel, thus increasing the odds that more will be killed. The other is that the benefits derived from introducing graduated driver license programs across the country in the last two decades may be leveling off.

But there are steps to be taken to counter the disturbing trend of the last two years.

The GHSA notes that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has estimated that if each state adopted all of the most stringent requirements that are in force in graduated driver license programs found sporadically across the country, the number of fatal crashes could be reduced by an average of 37 percent. Those requirements involve a minimum learner permit age of 16 and intermediate licensing age of 17, at least 65 hours of supervised driving, a night driving restriction beginning at 8 p.m., and a passenger restriction of no non-family members.

Police enforcement of GDL laws also remains a problem, the GHSA says, one that some states are trying to tackle. The association notes that West Virginia, for example, has surveyed police about their knowledge of GDL laws to help develop a strategy for boosting enforcement.

Parents also can play a key role, by not only seeing that the driving requirements for their teen drivers are met, but also by setting an example with their own driving habits and emphasizing safe driving habits and attitudes.

In light of the increasing death toll among young drivers, all of these approaches are important. We encourage safety officials, lawmakers, police, parents and young drivers themselves to review the requirements and practices and make a commitment to improved safety. All of these actions could make the nation's highways safer for teens and other motorists.

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