Eighteen-year-old Brian Ecklund was on his way out with two high school friends one snowy evening this winter when he suddenly realized that they were speeding the wrong way down a one-way street in their suburban Philadelphia town of Radnor. "Dude! It's a one-way, and you need to slow down!" he told the friend who was driving. The driver hit the brakes, pulled into a parking lot, and turned the car around, and they continued on their way. The whole episode took less than a minute, and no one was hurt.
Driving mishaps can happen to anyone, but they happen all too frequently to teenage drivers. Lacking significant experience behind the wheel and often distracted by friends or cellphones, teens are four times as likely to have an accident as drivers ages 20 or older. Worse, their risk of a fatal crash is disproportionately high: Motor vehicle accidents are the No. 1 cause of death for teenagers between 16 and 19, accounting for a third of all deaths in this age group. Driver error tends to be to blame in crashes between ages 15 and 17, while alcohol is more likely to be a factor in accidents with older teens, say experts.
It was 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 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research organization financed by auto insurers. But the decline in fatalities thus far only serves to highlight how much more needs to be done.
Indeed, the first-ever U.S. News rankings of the best states for teen drivers found a wide disparity in the driving conditions and safety laws young drivers face in different parts of the nation. The analysis examined data from the U.S. Department of Transportation along with ratings regarding each state's laws pertinent to driver safety from IIHS and the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a coalition that works to advance state and federal highway and vehicle safety laws. The District of Columbia tops the list by having some of the most rigorous laws governing how teens earn their driver's licenses, banning all drivers from text messaging behind the wheel, and using traffic cameras to curtail speeding. 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.
In recent years, safety experts, elected officials, and public-policy experts have focused on strengthening such state laws with the goal of making roads safer for young drivers. One particular focus has been graduated driver licensing laws, which appear to be highly effective at reducing teen crashes. These laws slow down the licensing process so that teens are older and have more experience behind the wheel before they receive unrestricted driving privileges. The laws also 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. Since Florida adopted the first graduated licensing law in 1996, nearly every state has adopted GDL policies in some form, and many have moved to tighten restrictions in recent years.
Experts such as those at IIHS say that the most effective GDL laws start with a six-month learner's permit stage, beginning no earlier than age 16, that includes 30 to 50 hours of supervised driving. The intermediate stage lasts until age 18 and restricts teen drivers from driving at night and with teenage passengers.
But state laws vary tremendously, and some are much more permissive than others. North Dakota, for example, has no restrictions on nighttime driving or the number of passengers. "States that lag tend to be rural, where the argument has been that they drive early to help with the family farm," says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at IIHS. Teens also have fewer options for getting from one place to another in rural areas, in contrast to cities, where public transportation is often available.