Backseat dangers

January 26, 2004

TEEN-AGE DRIVERS are dangerous. They are inexperienced, risk-taking and easily distracted. But here's something you may not know: The teens in the backseat are part of the problem, too.

Drivers ages 16 to 19 are more likely to be killed in crashes than drivers 20 or older by nearly 2-to-1. In 2000, 2,603 teen drivers perished on the road, according to a report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But being 16 and sitting in the backseat is not much safer. A total of 2,278 teen passengers died that same year.

The reason? An estimated 63 percent of the teen passengers who died in crashes were riding in a vehicle driven by another teen. How teens interact is part of the reason why both are at such great risk on the highways.

Think about it. How often do teens pile into a car, crank up the music, or pull out their cell phones? The driver's attention wanders. Or maybe he or she tries to impress his or her peers. Speeding and alcohol are more likely to come into play in this group dynamic.

Maryland, like many states, has recently tried to make teen drivers safer by restricting driver's licenses. Under the graduated licensing program, not only are first-time drivers required to go through a period of supervision (the learner's permit stage), but at 16 they are eligible only for an 18-month provisional license. They can't drive alone late at night, and among other things, the parent or guardian has the option of withdrawing consent.

But one thing the Maryland licensing system doesn't do is address passengers. Twenty-five states have. In Virginia, for instance, provisional drivers can't have more than one passenger younger than 18 for the first year and no more than three passengers under 18 until they turn 18 themselves.

Here's an even simpler approach: For the first six months of a provisional license, allow no passengers under 18 except for members of the immediate family or relatives living at the same address.

That's a sensible law and was nearly approved by the General Assembly last year. It's supported by safety advocates, insurers and AAA.

Novice drivers carrying teen passengers would be guilty of a secondary offense, meaning a police officer couldn't pull over a teen for a suspected violation. A citation could be issued only if the driver is pulled over for another reason such as speeding.

The parents of 16-year-olds may not be entirely thrilled by the law. It would mean, for instance, that their high school junior may no longer carpool with classmates.

Del. Adrienne A. Mandel, a Montgomery County Democrat and the proposal's sponsor in the House, admits it won't solve the problem of teen deaths on the highway, but it should help. Surely, that's worth a modest inconvenience.

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