DAVID GREENE, host: The current generation of 16-year-olds has a pretty good driving record, at least among those who've actually gotten their licenses. A new study finds there are fewer fatal car crashes compared to decades past due in part to tougher state laws. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY: Getting your driver's license is a big deal. At least, that's how I remember it. Back in the 1980's when I was a teenager, it seemed everyone got their learner's permit as close to their 16th birthday as possible, quickly followed by a license. But times have changed. Take the story of 19-year-old Ren Kwan, who grew up in San Francisco. She started preparing for her driver's test at 16, but she failed it - twice.
REN KWAN: I was so nervous, and I really wasn't confident on the road. So the first time I failed because I was driving too slow. And then the second time it was because I hit the curb right away.
AUBREY: Kwan did pass the test a year later and she's never had an accident. Looking back, she says all of the requirements of California's teen licensing laws - everything from the mandatory driver's ed, which she took twice, to all of the supervised driving - probably did pay off.
Justin McNaull works for AAA. He analyzes teen driving laws in all the states.
JUSTIN MCNAULL: In the last 15 years, we've made great strides in getting the licensing process to do a better job at helping youngsters get through it safely.
AUBREY: He says Kwan's story squares with the latest research. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week, finds that tougher licensing laws have led to about 1,300 fewer fatal car crashes involving 16 year olds in the period between 1986 and 2007. And that's a lot of lives.
MCNAULL: So we know that giving kids the chance to learn to drive under safer conditions, not late at night and not with a bunch of teen passengers in the car, will help give the teen a chance to make those first couple thousand miles of driving much safer and much more survivable.
AUBREY: So here's where the story of teen driving gets a little complicated. More training and more practice is saving the lives of 16-year-olds. But the same study also finds that the number of 18-year-olds dying behind the wheel has actually increased. There were about 1,000 more fatal crashes during the same period. So what gives? Study Author Scott Matsen of the California DMV has one explanation.
SCOTT MATSEN: We have more novices on the road at age 18 and 19 than before. That's what we see in California.
AUBREY: Fewer 16-year-olds are getting their licenses. In California, there's been a huge drop - from about one-third of 16-year-olds driving back in the 1970's down to, at latest count, just 14 percent. And what happens when teens postpone getting a license until they're 18 or older? Well, they're treated like adults. They're not required to take drivers ed or practice with supervision.
MATSEN: They're saying the heck with your more complicated process, I'm going to turn 18, and I'm not going to have to take driver's ed. I'm not going to have to do all this practice with mom and dad, and I'll get my license then.
AUBREY: Ah-ha. So it's sort of the unintended consequence of the laws?
MATSEN: Yes, it's a side-effect we're seeing.
AUBREY: There's only one state, New Jersey, that requires young adults through the age of 21 to complete the same training as younger teens. And Anne McCart, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says it's paying off.
ANNE MCCART: Reduced crashes, you know, across the board for teenagers.
AUBREY: As for California teenager Ren Kwan, she says she knows a lot of people who waited until 18 and skipped out on drivers ed, which she says is not a good move.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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