Limits on teen driving bolstered

Study links safety to gradual licensing

June 22, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTER

Restrictions on new teen drivers such as those adopted by Maryland last year appear to be effective in reducing serious traffic accidents among 16- and 17-year-old drivers, according to a report to be released today by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

The study found that measures known as "graduated driver licensing" - including such provisions as limiting nighttime driving and limiting other teenagers as passengers - can reduce fatal crashes among 16-year-olds by about 20 percent.

Last year, the Maryland General Assembly, with the backing of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., passed a package of rules designed to improve driver training and to shield young drivers from some of the more serious road distractions. It included curbs on giving rides to other teenagers but not on driving at night.

Peter Kissinger, president of the AAA Foundation, said about 1,000 drivers ages 16 and 17 are killed in the United States each year. He said another 2,000 people - passengers in the same vehicle, pedestrians or occupants of other vehicles - are killed in such accidents.

The foundation also released statistics showing that almost 400 people died in accidents involving teen drivers in Maryland over the 1995-2004 period.

Kissinger said the study, conducted by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada, compared crash statistics in Oregon, which has a graduated licensing program, with Ontario, which did not when the study was conducted in 2003-2004.

"The most significant finding with respect to graduated driver licensing [programs] is that they work," he said.

Kissinger said that about 30 percent of the fatalities involving 16- and 17-year-olds occur between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. He said half of the deaths involving drivers in that age group occur when one or more passengers under 21 are in the car.

The study also found that teen drivers who comply with the legal restrictions on their driving are about twice as likely to avoid crashes during their first six months of driving as their peers who break the rules.

The AAA foundation is releasing the study now because July and August are the most dangerous time of year for teen drivers, Kissinger said, adding that the number of fatalities involving teenage drivers averages 20 percent higher during those months than the rest of the year.

The concept of graduated driver licenses dates to the 1970s, when the federal government adopted a model system. States were slow to embrace such programs, but according to the AAA foundation, all of the states have enacted some elements of the system.

The package of restrictions Maryland adopted include:

Increasing the minimum period of driving on a learner's permit from three to six months and raising the age for obtaining a license to 16 years and 3 months.

Making the license provisional until age 18.

Forbidding unsupervised drivers from carrying nonfamily passengers under 18 for their first five months with a provisional license.

Barring drivers under 18 from using cell phones or other wireless communications devices while driving - except for emergencies.

Daniel Mayhew, senior vice president of the Traffic Injury Foundation in Ottawa, said Maryland's graduated license program compares well with those of other states and Canadian provinces.

"It's certainly not among the weaker," he said, adding that the state could strengthen its program by adopting nighttime restrictions.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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