A comprehensive, federally funded study of highway fatalities and laws that govern 16-year-old drivers confirmed today what past research has suggested: Strict driving rules for teenagers can save lives.
In a report released this morning, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed the number of fatal crashes caused by 16-year-old drivers in 41 states and the District of Columbia.
It found far fewer deaths in Maryland and other states that have tough restrictions on 16-year-olds. Nationwide, they range from a ban on driving after midnight to requiring at least 30 hours of adult driving supervision before a teenager can take a driver's test.
"There are huge advantages to making sure that kids are trained as well as possible," said Susan P. Baker, a professor and injury prevention specialist at Bloomberg who led the study.
The report, sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, focused on fatalities in the District of Columbia and the 41 states that had some type of graduated driver licensing program by the end of 2004, Baker said. Four other states have enacted restrictions since then, the agency says.
The researchers found that states with at least a few restrictions on young drivers had 11 percent fewer fatal crashes caused by 16-year-olds between 1994 and 2004 compared with states that had no restrictions.
But 19 states - including Maryland - place at least five restrictions on 16-year-old drivers, and those states together reported 20 percent fewer fatalities, Baker said.
"Maryland is one of the states with more comprehensive laws," she said.
Maryland began a graduated driver licensing program in 1999. Under the system, a 16-year-old driver is given a provisional license and earns full driving privileges only after 18 months of trouble-free driving.
Nationwide, there are about 1,000 fatal crashes each year involving 16-year-old drivers, so a 20 percent reduction translates into about 200 lives a year, Baker said.
There was no single restriction that stood out in reducing deaths. "The thing is, all of these restrictions are important," Baker said.
Officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which shared costs for the $264,000 study with Hopkins, said the findings add support for teen driving restrictions.
"I think it will help any state legislators looking at teenage driving laws, and any parents with a teenager who wants to start driving. Parents may want to say, `Even if it's not the law of my state, it can be the law in my house when my children turn 16,'" said Nicole Nason, the NHTSA's administrator.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reached similar conclusions in a smaller study of graduated driver licensing programs released June 22.
The foundation found that a state with night-time driving and passenger restrictions (Oregon) had 20 percent fewer crashes involving 16 year olds than a Canadian province (Ontario) that didn't have the restrictions.
Although restrictions play a major role, the lead author of the AAA report said getting parents involved is also important. "They should get out on the road and practice with their children under a diversity of conditions," said Daniel R. Mayhew, senior vice president of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation.
The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration uses its Web site to encourage parents to spend time teaching their children to drive, said John T. Kuo, the MVA's administrator.
"Parents spend hours and hours teaching their kids how to play baseball or how to play football or basketball. They should do the same thing when they want to learn how to drive," he said.
Traffic safety advocates say the studies support their arguments about the benefits of teen driving restrictions. "None of these studies come as a surprise. This was what we said would happen when we passed these laws," said state Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat and supporter of teen driving restrictions.
Several attempts over the years to beef up restrictions on teenage drivers drew little attention or support in the General Assembly until a series of teenage highway fatalities in 2004 and early in 2005, Bronrott said.
The fatalities prompted legislators, with the backing of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., to enact a package of restrictions that took effect in October.
"In previous years, I think a lot of it was just a case of things getting lost in the press of other business," Bronrott said.
Before a new driver can take the licensing test, the state requires a learner's permit for at least six months, 36 hours of driver's education and 60 hours of supervised driving practice with a qualified adult (someone 21 or older who has been a licensed driver for at least three years).
For the first five months under a provisional license, drivers younger than 18 are prohibited from carrying nonfamily teenage passengers without an adult in the car. Drivers younger than 18 are also banned from using cell phones while operating a vehicle except to make an emergency 911 call.
How states restrict young drivers
More than 40 states and the District of Columbia have restrictions on teenage drivers. The types of restrictions include:
A minimum age of 15 years and six months for a learner's permit.
A waiting period of at least three months for permit holders before they apply for a license.
A minimum of 30 hours of adult-supervised driving.
A minimum age of 16 for an intermediate or provisional license.
A minimum age of 17 for a full license.
Night-time driving restrictions.
Some restriction on carrying passengers.
Source: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study