GDL laws make a big difference in the risk teens face of dying in a crash. Research by IIHS found that delaying the licensing age from 16 to 16.5 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.
Although GDL laws are effective, they don't address another hazard teen drivers face: their cellphones. Researchers are still learning how much the risk of a crash increases for a driver distracted by cellphone calls and text messages. But a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that truck drivers were 23 times more likely to crash if they were text messaging behind the wheel. Meanwhile, a Nationwide Insurance study found that 40 percent of cellphone owners under age 30 sent or read text messages while driving.
Voice calls appear to be less risky. But for teens, the most inexperienced and easily distracted of drivers, any activity that tempts them to take their eyes and their minds off the road is problematic. Teens are more likely to try to multitask behind the wheel than other drivers, says David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah who studies the effects of cellphone use on the brain. While they fiddle with their phones, teens are manually, visually, and cognitively distracted, he says. And teenage brains, even more than those of adults, might not be up to juggling these tasks. "The brain centers responsible for coordinating responses and multitasking haven't fully developed in teens," says Strayer.
States have responded to the threat with a wave of laws in recent years. Hand-held cellphone calls are banned for all drivers in seven states, and novice drivers are restricted from using any kind of cellphone in 21 states and the District of Columbia. Text messaging is forbidden altogether behind the wheel in 19 states and D.C., and an additional nine states forbid teen drivers from texting while driving.
Democratic Sens. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Charles Schumer of New York both introduced legislation last fall hoping to encourage more states to enact bans. Schumer's bill would require states to ban sending text or E-mail messages while driving. States that failed to enact such laws would risk losing 25 percent of their federal highway funding. Rockefeller's bill would establish a grant program for states that pass laws prohibiting texting while driving. Both bills have been referred to committee for study.
Unlike cellphones, teenage passengers can learn to encourage safer driving when they're with friends rather than causing a distraction. Brian Ecklund, the teen whose friend missed the one-way sign, credits the Ride Like a Friend program (ridelikeafriend.com) at his high school with reinforcing the message that passengers and drivers alike play a role in safety. "Everybody recognizes that you're in a vehicle that can crash and kill people," he says. "But the program says you have a responsibility not to impede the driver's ability to drive."
The program, organized by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, provides posters, fliers, postcards, and a planning guide for schools and groups to use to help educate teens about risky behaviors like playing loud music, texting, not wearing seat belts, and speeding. "The goal is to give both passenger and driver a sense that they have a role in the car and empower them to make it a safer ride," says Lela Jacobsohn, a health communication researcher for CHOP. In partnership with a group called Students Against Destructive Decisions, the program will expand to dozens of schools this year, she says. Another peer education project is sponsored by the National Organizations for Youth Safety. Its distracted driving activism contest (actoutloud.org) invites high school teams and other groups to compete for a $10,000 prize for the most original and comprehensive school or community proposal.