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Older Teens Benefit Least From Driving Restrictions, Study Finds

There must be more to this story than meets the eye. It doesn’t seem to make sense. But as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, in states with restrictions on the driver license of young teenage drivers, older teenagers are more likely to have fatal crashes than in states without restrictions. The so-called graduated driver licenses appear to be a good idea, but not if the result is more deaths among older teens. Here are excerpts from the newspaper article:

Older teen drivers are more likely to have fatal crashes in states with restrictions aimed at protecting inexperienced young drivers in a study that may spur policy makers to re-evaluate the programs.

The rules limit passengers and night-time driving for beginners younger than age 18. While the states with the strictest restrictions experienced a lower rate of fatal crashes among 16-year-olds, the rate was higher for 18-year-olds, according to research released today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study is one of the first to suggest that driving restrictions may not help keep older teenagers safe behind the wheel, said Anne McCartt, senior vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Virginia, who wrote an accompanying editorial in the journal. More studies are needed to determine if some teens are delaying getting their license until after they turn 18 when most state graduated licensing programs end, she said.

“It’s great we’re saving 16-year-old drivers,” said Scott Masten, the lead author and a research manager with the California Department of Motor Vehicles in Sacramento. “Our goal was to make them safer drivers. How can we save more lives?

“I hope this starts some discussion,” Masten said in a Sept. 12 telephone interview. “As the laws are currently implemented, we’re not saving older teen lives. Why?”

Graduated driver licensing programs vary by state and the laws are changing, Masten said. As of July, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted these programs, he said.

Generally, the laws require teens first to obtain a learner’s permit mandating they drive under an adult’s supervision. In California, teens may apply for a learner’s permit at age 15 1/2, which they are required to hold for at least six months, Masten said. California teenagers can obtain a driver’s license at 16 that allows them to drive on their own, but bans any passengers younger than 20 and prohibits driving from 11 p.m.-5 a.m. The restrictions lift a year after a teenager obtains the license, he said.

“The approach is meant to allow the extensive learning that occurs during the initial several months of driving to be gained in realistic — yet the safest possible — conditions,” the authors wrote.

Researchers in the study analyzed fatal crashes involving 16- to 19-year-old drivers for all U.S. states and Washington, D.C. from 1986 to 2007. They ranked states based on strong programs with passenger and night-time restrictions, and weaker programs that had only one of the two limitations. The groups were compared with states that at the time had no similar rules.

In states with the strongest programs, a 12 percent increase in fatal crashes occurred involving 18-year-old drivers compared with states that had no restrictions, Masten said. In those with weaker programs, there was a 10 percent increase.

Sixteen-year-old drivers in states with strong programs had a 26 percent reduction in fatal accidents compared with those in states with no laws, while 16-year-olds in states with weaker programs had a 16 percent reduction in fatal crashes, Masten said.

The researchers also saw evidence of a reduction in fatal crashes for 17-year-olds in states with the driving restrictions, he said.

Masten and his colleagues noted their research is limited because the best available data are for fatal motor vehicle crashes, which are often associated with alcohol abuse and excessive speeding.

Crashes involving 16- and 17-year-olds tend to occur because they aren’t experienced drivers and fail, for example, to check their blind spots, Masten said. For older teens, alcohol use and speeding are more often reasons for accidents regardless of the driving restrictions.

In states with graduated license programs, 18-year-olds seem to have more accidents because they didn’t get enough practice driving at a younger age or “they are skipping out on driving before age 18 and are complete novices,” he said.

McCartt, with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said if today’s findings are true and teens are waiting until 18 to avoid graduated licensing laws, policymakers should consider strengthening regulations. In New Jersey, the minimum age for an intermediate license is 17 and graduated licensing restrictions apply to all new license applicants younger than 21, according to the editorial.

“We don’t know for sure whether graduated licensing makes older teens less safe, safer or has no effect,” McCartt said today in a telephone interview. “If there is a benefit or a dis-benefit, we haven’t tested the hypotheses for why this might be. We need to learn more.”

Bob Kraft

I am a Dallas, Texas lawyer who has had the privilege of helping thousands of clients since 1971 in the areas of Personal Injury law and Social Security Disability.

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