Putting the brakes on teen driving

Tuesday, July 11, 2006
A recent study found restrictions on young drivers, such as a requiring a specific amount of supervised driving time, can improve safety. (Photo courtesy drivediagnostics.com)

Local teens, parents disagree about driving restrictions

When the light turns green on William Street, you move forward just as an overzealous 16-year-old plows his new Mustang GT through the intersection and into your driver side door.

Unfortunately for you, the fact that he made a perfect score on his driver's exam isn't going to save your life. The traffic lights will continue changing, taunting young drivers to beat that yellow signal -- to impress someone, to feel an adrenaline rush. Another accident is inevitable.

With nearly 1,000 fatal crashes a year involving 16-year-olds across the country, many are wondering if such an age can handle the responsibility of controlling themselves behind the wheel.

Nearly all 50 states, including Missouri in 2001, have implemented a graduated driver's license program in which certain restrictions are placed on young drivers. Introduced to the United States in 1994, the program has three different stages -- instruction permit, intermediate license and full license. Some states have even gone beyond the bare minimum of requirements to keep both new and experienced drivers safer.

Oregon requires that permit holders complete 50 hours of supervised driving and a certified driver's education course. Missouri requires just 20 hours and no driver's education course. At the intermediate stage, Missouri drivers are allowed to have anyone in the car. Oregon drivers are allowed no passengers under 20 for the first six months, with the exception of family members.

With Oregon contributing to a 20 percent decrease in fatalities involving 16-year-olds between 1994 and 2004, Missouri may begin increasing their number of restrictions as well.

"I think it's stupid," said 16-year-old Cassie Graviett. "Whenever you get your license, people immediately think you'll have a wreck, but we've already had a lot of learning with our permit."

"We're mature enough at that age," added 15-year-old Crysten Heisserrer.

But for Crysten's mom, Gail, stricter regulations involving her daughter's license may be the key to a safer driving experience and less worrisome nights sitting by the phone. She also wouldn't mind seeing new drivers starting at a later age.

"A lot of kids -- not all kids -- are too immature." she said. "But I've been there. I'd feel the same way they do. It's a time in their life they look forward to."

She isn't the only one noticing the maturity in older teens behind the wheel. Studies have shown that a single year improves the driver's capabilities immensely, with 17-year-olds being three times less likely to be involved in a crash.

The idea of raising the legal driving age has been the subject of many debates over the past years, but so far the highest age belongs to Connecticut, where drivers must be 16 and a half to receive their intermediate license.

Until the day comes when 16 is legally considered to be too young for the road, parents like Gail Heisserer will just have to trust that their kids know what they're doing out there in traffic.

"They should be careful, and make driving a priority," she said. "It's not just a fun thing to do. It's serious."


Driving in the Show-Me State

* Missouri's Graduated Driver License law requires that all first-time drivers between 15 and 18 years old complete a period of driving with a licensed driver (Instruction Permit), followed by a period of restricted driving (Intermediate License), before getting a full license.

* If the permit holder is under 16 years old, the accompanying licensed driver must be their parent, step parent, grandparent, legal guardian*, or a certified driver training instructor employed by a federal residential job training program; or in case of disability, their designee. If the permit holder is enrolled in a driver training program, the driver may also operate a motor vehicle while a qualified driver training instructor occupies the seat beside the driver. Qualified driver training instructors are defined as instructors who have a valid driver education endorsement on a teaching certificate issued by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or an instructor with a private driver education program.

* If the permit holder is 16 years old or older, the accompanying driver can be any person who is at least 21 years old and has a valid driver license.

At age 16, the driver may obtain an Intermediate License. The Intermediate License allows the driver to drive alone except under certain conditions during a late night curfew (1:00 am to 5:00 am). The driver and passengers must use seat belts, be free of alcohol and drugs and obey the traffic laws. At age 18, the driver may apply for a Full License.

Study finds stricter driving rules for teens saves lives

The Baltimore Sun

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed the number of fatal crashes caused by 16-year-old drivers in 41 states and the District of Columbia. They found:

* Far fewer deaths in states that have tough restrictions on 16-year-olds. Nationwide, they range from a ban on driving after midnight to requiring at least 30 hours of adult driving supervision before a teenager can take a driver's test.

* Forty-one states had some type of graduated driving license programs by the end of 2004. Four other states have since enacted restrictions, the agency said.

* States with at least a few restrictions on young drivers had 11 percent fewer fatal crashes caused by 16-year-olds between 1994 and 2004 compared with states that had no restrictions.

* Nineteen states place at least five restrictions on 16-year-old drivers, and those states together reported 20 percent fewer fatalities.

* Nationwide, there are about 1,000 fatal crashes each year involving 16-year-old drivers, so a 20 percent reduction translates into about 200 lives a year.

* States with night-time driving and passenger restrictions had 20 percent fewer crashes involving 16-year-olds than a Canadian province that did not have the restrictions.

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