MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Florida's elderly drivers were featured yesterday in our series On the Road to Safety. Today, we're going to hear about teenagers. The number of teenage drivers killed in car crashes has dropped dramatically in the last decade. Of those, teenage male drivers are twice as likely to get into fatal car crashes as teenage female drivers. And boys are more likely than girls to have been speeding or drinking.
NPR's Robert Benincasa reports.
ROBERT BENINCASA: Seventeen-year-old Basil Rynestead is a friendly kid who plays football and baseball for his high school. He listens to rap and country music, and he loves driving the old Toyota pickup truck his parents gave him. It's that last part where, whether you know Basil or not, you might pause. A highway statistician would forgive you.
About 6,000 15 to 20-year-old drivers were involved in fatal crashes last year. Almost three-quarters of them were male, helping make car crashes the leading cause of death for that age group.
Basil and his parents don't need those stats to know they're fighting a real battle against peer pressure, his inexperience, and other challenges to keep him safe on the road.
Mr. BASIL RYNESTEAD: Got to put my glasses on.
BENINCASA: It's a moonless fall evening and Basil is just home from football practice at Liberty High School in Fauquier County, Virginia. I buckle my seatbelt to take a ride with him. He tells me his theory on why young men can be reckless behind the wheel.
Mr. RYNESTEAD: Guys like to do stupid stuff for adrenaline.
BENINCASA: The rural roads near his house are twisty and have no shoulders. The traffic is fast. But Basil seems relaxed and focused. He said he's had to brush off some of his buddies who've told him to drive faster.
Mr. RYNESTEAD: There's a lot of my friends who are, like, think it's cool, like, to speed. Like, they'll speed up real quick around the turns. But I don't like doing that stuff.
BENINCASA: Renee(ph) Rynestead, Basil's mom, says she has all the usual concerns that parents of a young driver have. Plus, she worries her son can be impulsive and easily distracted. Take homecoming weekend. Unexpectedly, he called her and said he was at a party where other kids were drinking.
Ms. RENEE RYNESTEAD: And I said, then you need to come home. You know, we've talked about that. I want you home right now. And he basically told me, you know, I'll deal with the consequences. I'm not going to come home.
BENINCASA: Basil came home at 7:30 the next morning, saying he had nothing to drink. But Rynestead said the call from the party put her in a quandary.
Ms. RYNESTEAD: If I force him to come home, then he might have a drink and drive while he's drinking. I know the people if he stays with them, you know. And I know he's too old, I can't say, let me put the mom on the phone.
BENINCASA: Basil says he'd never drink and drive, but some teens clearly do and with tragic results.
Dr. ANNE MCCARTT (Senior Vice President for Research, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety): Male teenagers are, you know, who were driving in a fatal crash are much more likely � more than twice as likely � to have been alcohol-impaired when the crash occurred.
BENINCASA: Anne McCartt is senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. She's an expert on teen drivers. And she says that for whatever reasons - cultural or biological - boys take more risks.
Dr. MCCARTT: There are just these very striking differences between males and females. You see a discrepancy in terms of all driver errors, including speeding. So that might be following too closely, failure to yield.
BENINCASA: In addition to taking more risks, it's also true that males drive more. So they have more opportunities to crash. But some studies have made adjustments for that and the gender gap is still there. Figures from McCartt's group indicate that male drivers continue to have a higher fatal crash rate as they age. And that gender difference doesn't disappear until age 60.
There may be no easy way to moderate the combination of horsepower and testosterone. But McCartt says there's promise in state laws that grant driving privileges gradually for all teens as they gain skills and maturity. Virginia requires young drivers and their parents to appear before a judge just to get their licenses.
Inside this courtroom in the City of Chesapeake, Judge Larry Willis hands out licenses to teenagers one by one. But first, he reminds them that he has the power to take them away.
Judge LARRY WILLIS (Chesapeake Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court): As you're driving down the road and thinking of something really stupid to do or to you it may seem a really cool thing to do, or a friend riding with you, that one friend suggests something like, let's see how fast your car will go. Think to yourself, is this worth spending the next two years riding in the backseat with my mom and dad driving me around?
BENINCASA: Judge Willis also had a message for the parents in his courtroom. He told them that they, and not their sons and daughters, should set the rules on when and if their kids can drive. It's a message Rynestead, as the mother of a new driver, takes to heart.
Ms. RYNESTEAD: It's not that we don't trust Basil. You know, it's an earning thing. And it's sort of like every time we give him just an inch, he takes a mile. So socially we keep it very limited because I'm afraid that if we don't put real boundaries on what we're doing with him, it's going to - he'll just take whatever he can do.
Robert Benincasa, NPR News.