Oct. 20, 2008 -- While everyone agrees that far too many teens are killed on the road, the good news is that teen driving deaths are decreasing.
The number of young drivers and their passengers killed in crashes is down almost 20 percent in the last five years, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Officials credit the drop to tougher rules for teen drivers on the roads.
At a New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission office, first-time teen drivers eagerly await the chance to pass their test and hit the road, but their license will come with lots of restrictions.
"We have young people who don't understand the risks and they want to get into the traffic stream," said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "How do we do that while limiting the amount of damage they do to themselves and to others?"
The answer that many states have adopted is the graduated licensing system. Teens aren't given the keys and set loose, but instead have to earn their driving rights in stages.
"We minimize those things that we know really cause a teen to get into trouble," said Pam Fischer, director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety. "Those first 24 months that they're driving are absolutely the most dangerous. We need them to understand that they really have to demonstrate proficiency ... [and] they have to demonstrate safety."
In almost every state in the nation, new teen drivers are banned from driving late at night and teens aren't allowed to pile all their friends into the car. In some states, they're forbidden to carry any teen passengers.
Overall, statistics indicate the measures are working.
States that have implimented graduated licensing laws, like California and Michigan, have reduced crashes of 15-to-17-year-olds by 23 percent since 1996, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And deaths of teen drivers and passengers declined nearly 23 percent in Texas from 2002 to 2006, according to a study out today by the Texas Transportation Institute.
The NHTSA has shown that limiting teens' night driving can cut accidents by 60 percent. And limiting the number of teens in a car is critical, too.
"For each teen passenger you put in the car, the crash rate goes up 50 percent," Fischer said. "We absolutely know that. Add a few more teens and it essentially becomes a party on wheels."
States' Driving Restrictions Promote Safety
In New Jersey, teens must live with these restrictions for their first full year on the road.
"I realize it's going to be hard on them," said Deanna Generals, sister of a new teen driver, Nia. "Many kids are anxious to get their license and get out and party and show off in front of their friends, but it's a lot safer."
States are also increasingly banning any cell phone use by teen drivers.
States first started experimenting with graduated licensing laws more than a decade ago. At that time, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 39 states had poor laws and none had tough regulations. The laws have gotten better. Now, not one state has a weak law, and 29 states have what are considered tough laws.
"The teen crash rates have come down clearly, as states have established graduated licensing laws," Lund said.
Still, for some teen drivers, who envisioned getting the car keys would be the ultimate freedom, the restrictions come as a disappointment.
"I don't really like it that much, but I guess for a year it's fine," said Renee Plewa, a new driver from New Jersey.
But officials say that the measures will continue to protect the newest and most at-risk drivers on the road.
"Eighty-five percent of crashes are caused by the behavior of the driver behind the wheel," Fischer said. "So, if we're going to make a dent in that number, we have to start by putting safer drivers on the road. We've got to start by teaching our children at a very young age what it means to be safe behind the wheel, what it means to be a good passenger, what it means to get in and put your seatbelt on."