Adult drivers may have few problems focusing on the road with passengers in the vehicle, but for teenage drivers, passengers can prove a deadly distraction, with each additional passenger increasing the risk of a crash, studies show.
"A teen driver driving by himself or herself is twice as likely to have a fatal collision as an adult," said Carol Carmody, the acting chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "A teen driver with teen passengers is five times as likely."
Teenage drivers make up about 7 percent of all drivers, but are involved in nearly 14 percent of all accidents.
The NTSB is urging states to change teen driving laws to try to lower the toll.
Today, the NTSB recommended that states bar new drivers from carrying more than one passenger under age 20. The board also suggested that only those age 21 or older supervise new drivers.
According to the NTSB, only seven states have what they consider to be these "tough restrictions." In California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont and Wisconsin, new drivers may not be accompanied by more than one passenger for at least six months after receiving their licenses.
States with the restrictions have seen injuries and fatalities in crashes involving teen drivers drop by as much as 30 percent.
‘A Recipe for Disaster’
Dave Greening helped pass the Wisconsin law. His 15-year-old son, Kris, was killed while riding in a car with his high school cross-country running teammates. The driver of the vehicle, who had less than one year of experience on the road, reportedly reached speeds of 120 miles per hour before he lost control of the car, which cartwheeled over some trees. Greening was the only person killed in the accident.
"There seems to be in the age group, one, a lot of inexperience behind the wheel, and two, a certain feeling of invincibility among kids," said Greening. "Putting other teen passengers in a car with a novice driver is a recipe for disaster."
Many teenagers dislike the recommended restrictions, which in essence would keep them away from their friends while driving a car.
"If I was easily distracted, I would be distracted by them [passengers]," said 17-year-old driver Eliza Meltzer of Washington, D.C. "I'm able to focus when I'm driving and I think most people are."
Parents Want Kids to Take Over the Chauffeur Duties
It's not just teenagers who oppose these laws. Lawmakers say opposition also comes from those responsible for the teens.
"The biggest problem is the parents, the parents who can't wait to have their kids take over the carpool," said Illinois state Sen. John Cullerton.
Cullerton, who has authored a number of traffic-safety laws, says it's also a challenge to overcome lawmakers who oppose any kind of restrictions such as seat-belt laws or helmet laws. "You have a certain number of legislators who are just going to vote no all the time."
The NTSB hopes its recommendations will pressure states to change their laws. The problem is only likely to get worse. From 1993 to 2010, the number of young novice drivers will increase by a predicted 23 percent.