Teenage Driving Laws May Just Delay Deadly Crashes
By ANAHAD O'CONNOR SEPTEMBER 14, 2011 6:22 PM September 14, 2011 6:22 pm
Raising the age a teenager can begin driving may also increase the rate of accident's among these older teens.Raising the age at which a teenager can begin driving may also increase the rate of accidents among these older teens.
A nationwide study shows that tougher licensing laws for teenage drivers have reduced deadly accidents among 16-year-olds, but with an unintended consequence: increasing the fatal crash rate among 18-year-olds.
Over the last two decades, many states have put in place strict teenage driving laws, with graduated driver’s license programs that require young drivers to meet certain restrictions before they obtain a full license. While the rules vary by state, they generally set a minimum age for earning a driver’s permit or license and require a set number of supervised hours behind the wheel, and some prohibit driving with fellow teenagers, ban night driving or require at least six months of instruction before a driver’s test. Over all, the tougher laws — which most states began adopting in the mid-1990s — have been credited with a 30 percent drop in highway fatalities among teenagers.
But “most of the prior studies on graduated driver licensing have only looked at 16-year-olds,” said Scott Masten, a researcher with California’s Department of Motor Vehicles and the lead author of the current study. “When you do that you go, ‘Wow, these programs are saving lives,’” he said.
To get a broader perspective, Dr. Masten and his colleagues looked at data on fatal crashes involving 16- to 19-year-olds that occurred over a 21-year period, beginning in 1986. “When you look at the bigger picture across 18- and 19-year-olds, it looks like we’re offsetting those saved crashes,” he said. “In fact, 75 percent of the fatal crashes we thought we were saving actually just occurred two years later. It’s shocking.”
The study, published Wednesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association, found that since the first graduated driver programs were instituted, there have been 1,348 fewer deadly crashes involving 16-year-old drivers. But at the same time, there have been 1,086 more fatal crashes that involved 18-year-olds. The net difference is still an improvement, Dr. Masten said, but not quite the effect that many had assumed.
“The bottom line is there is still a net overall savings from introducing all these programs,” he said. “So we are saving teen drivers over all, but it’s not nearly what we thought it would be.”
Dr. Masten strongly suspects that the reason for the increase in deadly crashes among 18-year-olds is that many teenagers, rather than deal with the extra restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds, are simply waiting to get a license until they turn 18, and skipping the restrictions altogether. As a result, a greater proportion of inexperienced drivers hit the road at 18. He pointed out that when California instituted its tougher driving laws for teenagers, the proportion of 16- and 17-year-olds getting licenses to drive dropped while the numbers at 18 and 19 did not.
But the authors also suggested another hypothesis: that teenagers going through graduated driver license programs are not getting as much practical driving experience when they have “co-drivers.” In other words, while having adult supervision in the car reduces risk, it also protects teenage drivers so much that they miss out on learning experiences that can be gleaned only by driving alone, like knowing what it means to be fully responsible for a vehicle and knowing how to “self-regulate.”
“Even though we want you to learn by driving with your parents, it’s really different from the sorts of things you learn when you’re driving on your own,” Dr. Masten said. “The whole thing about learning to drive is you need to expose yourself to crash risk to get experience.”
In an editorial that accompanied the study, researchers with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit group financed by insurance companies, said the findings raised a “serious issue” that policy makers should take note of. They pointed out that one of the states with the toughest programs for teenage drivers is New Jersey, where all first-time drivers under 21 have to adhere to graduated driver restrictions.
“New Jersey’s approach has been associated with significant reductions in the crash rates for 17- and 18-year-olds and virtually eliminates crashes among 16-year-olds, without adversely affecting crash rates for 19-year-old drivers,” the authors wrote.
But in a twist, New Jersey’s tough laws may have just shifted the effect to 21-year-olds, similar to the way tough restrictions on 16- and 17-year-olds were followed by a spike in deadly crashes among 18-year-olds in other states, Dr. Masten said. In New Jersey, a study of deadly crashes did not look specifically at 21-year-olds; they were mixed into a larger group of 20- to 24-year-olds. But the research still found a 10 percent increase in deadly crashes in that group after New Jersey’s tougher graduated driver licensing program was instituted, suggesting that 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds may be waiting out the tough restrictions there as well.
Other researchers have also found that the reason the rate of crashes among teenagers is so high — they account for 10 times as many crashes as middle-aged drivers — is not that they are reckless, but that they make simple mistakes, like failing to scan the road, misjudging driving conditions and becoming distracted. Some of these problems can be addressed through what experts call narrative driving: having adult drivers point out to teenage passengers examples of unsafe driving and explain to them how they are dealing with distractions on the road.
Lack of sleep can also be a major factor in teenage crashes. A study in The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine this year found that teenagers who started school earlier in the morning had higher crash rates.
FAMILY, PARENTING, DRIVING, TEEN DRIVING