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Legal Reins on Young Drivers Cut Crash Rate

Studies find big drop in both fatal, nonfatal accidents

TUESDAY, Oct. 2, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- New laws that keep the youngest drivers under tight supervision until they gain more experience can make a significant dent in the rates of both fatal and nonfatal accidents, new research says.

Studies in Michigan and North Carolina show that so-called graduated licensing provisions can reduce by roughly a quarter the number of crashes involving 16-year-old drivers. Car wrecks are the leading cause of death for American teens, and drivers with less than a year of experience on the roads are at much greater risk than those with more seasoning.

The main reason: A potentially deadly combination of impulsive, reckless behavior and "extreme inexperience to do a task that's amazingly complex," says Robert Foss, a highway safety expert at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and lead author of one of the studies, which appear in the Oct. 3 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association. "Anyone who has spent much time driving around with a young teen driver sees there's a lot that's going on that they don't know about."

Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have some form of graduated licensing laws. Thirty-four states and the district have more comprehensive, three-tiered systems that regulate factors like when teens may drive unsupervised and how many passengers they may carry.

Research has shown that a 16-year-old driver's risk of dying in a crash climbs 40 percent with a single passenger aboard. That risk doubles with two passengers and nearly triples with three. For 17-year-old drivers the odds are even worse.

Researchers also have found that teens who drive in the two hours between 10 p.m. and midnight are up to three times more likely to die in an accident than when they drive between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Again, this risk rises with more passengers.

The latest work is not the first to show that graduated licensing programs work. Safety officials in Ohio, which implemented a graduated licensing law in January 1998, estimate the rule has saved at least 30 lives by the beginning of last February.

Michigan enacted a three-tiered licensing law in April 1997. The rule requires new drivers under age 18 to undergo more rigorous driver's education, submit to extended supervised driving, and, while in "intermediate status," drive with a licensed driver who's at least 21 between midnight and 5 a.m. Once a driver turns 17 and has passed the first two tiers after a wreck- or ticket-free year on the road, he or she can drive without restrictions.

A team led by Jean Shope of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, which analyzed crash statistics before and after the law was enacted, says it has cut the accident rate for 16-year-olds in the state 25 percent. It also trimmed the risk of nonfatal accidents, evening and night crashes and multi-car wrecks.

Yet the program has not made much of an impact on the risk of fatal collisions or the teen rate of drunken driving.

In North Carolina, which in 1997 imposed a similar licensing system with even more restricted night driving, the reduction in crashes involving 16-years-old drivers has been impressive. Fatal wrecks fell 57 percent between 1996 and 1999, while crashes involving minor or no injuries dropped 23 percent. Accidents at night declined 43 percent during the period, while those during the day decreased 20 percent.

Foss says part of the difference in the success rates between the two states might have to do with North Carolina's stricter limits on nighttime driving. North Carolina prohibits 16-year-olds from driving after 9 p.m., while Michigan allows them to drive until midnight. Yet most teen night-driving accidents occur between 9 p.m. and midnight, Foss says.

Even so, Foss says the two states have had similarly encouraging experiences with their new teen driving programs.

Foss says graduated licensing programs are better thought of as systems, not laws. "It really lasts for 18 months or longer, depending on the state, and takes [teens] through a process that addresses the things we know are problematic."

One criticism about graduated licensing programs, leveled most strongly by states with large rural areas, is that they unfairly penalize teens from the country for a problem that's mostly urban. But Foss says his study shows that North Carolina's system cut youth accidents on roadways in both urban and rural areas alike.

Anne T. McCartt, a senior associate at Preusser Research Group, a consulting firm in Connecticut that specializes in driving issues, says what remains to be seen is whether crash rate improvements among 16- and 17-year-old drivers will carry over as they get older.

"These laws are relatively new, especially stronger laws like North Carolina's and Michigan's. We need to wait until teens move through the various stages and come out at the end," says McCartt, who wrote an editorial accompanying the journal articles.

What To Do

To learn more about the risks for teen drivers, check the Advocates for Auto and Highway Safety or SafetyTips.com.

You can also get more information about graduated driving laws from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which supports the initiatives.

SOURCES: Interviews with Robert Foss, Ph.D., research scientist, Highway Safety Research Center, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Anne T. McCartt, Ph.D., senior associate, Preusser Research Group, Trumbull, Conn.; Oct. 3, 2001 Journal of the American Medical Association
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