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.
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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.
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.
Tough laws and smart school programs can play an important role in reducing teen crashes, but their effects will be limited if parents aren't involved, say experts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently launched a "Parents Are the Key" campaign, urging adults to set good examples and discuss safe driving practices with kids. And many states require parents to certify that their teen has completed the required number of hours of supervised driving, says McCartt. Some advocacy groups work to educate parents about the laws in their state and develop parent-teen contracts that spell out the rules of the road for teenage driving. With good laws and guidance, the streets can be safer for everyone.