D.C. Tops New Ranking of Safest Places for Teen Drivers

U.S. News analyzed 11 factors that affect teen driving safety.

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The District of Columbia is the safest place in the nation for teens to drive, according to the first U.S.News & World Report ranking of the Best States for Teen Drivers. U.S. News examined 11 factors that affect teen driving safety, ranging from teen driver fatalities to laws regarding how quickly teens are able to earn unrestricted driving privileges to the average number of miles residents drive within the state.

The District topped the list by having some of the most rigorous laws in the country governing driver's license requirements for teens, banning text messaging for all drivers, and using automated traffic cameras to curtail speeding, according to the analysis of the data U.S. News gathered from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. South Dakota, at the bottom of the list, allows teenagers to drive at age 14 and has some of the nation's more lax laws regarding driving while intoxicated or distracted. The rest of the top 10 were (from second to 10th) California, Colorado, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Minnesota, Utah, and Washington.

More than 4,000 teens die in car crashes each year, making these accidents the leading cause of death for teenagers between 16 and 19. The numbers were worse just a few years ago. Between 1975 and 2007, the rate of crash fatalities among teens ages 16 to 19 dropped 43 percent, compared with a 30 percent decline for 20-to-69-year-olds, according to the IIHS, a nonprofit research organization financed by auto insurers.

Much of that drop in fatalities has been attributed to graduated driver licensing laws most states have passed to regulate how teens earn driver's licenses. These laws slow down the licensing process so that teens are older and have more experience before they receive unrestricted driving privileges. The laws often limit teens' exposure to high-risk conditions like nighttime driving, and many GDL laws forbid novice drivers from having teenage passengers in the car.

Research by IIHS found that delaying the licensing age from 16 to 16½ reduced the fatal crash rate of 15-to-17-year-olds by 7 percent. Restricting driving after 9 p.m. cut fatal crashes by 18 percent, compared with states with no restrictions. When novice drivers were prohibited from having teenage passengers, the fatal crash rate was 21 percent lower than if two or more passengers were allowed.

"It takes a while to learn to drive, and we need to help teens do that," says David Teater, the senior director of transportation initiatives at the National Safety Council.