Graduated Licensing Cuts Teen-Driving Dangers For generations, getting behind the wheel for the first time meant excitement, romance and danger. But now, most states have adopted new rules aimed at taking some of the danger out of learning to drive -- and perhaps a little of the fun.
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Graduated Licensing Cuts Teen-Driving Dangers

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Graduated Licensing Cuts Teen-Driving Dangers

Graduated Licensing Cuts Teen-Driving Dangers

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, whether or not they're present in judges, wisdom and thoughtfulness are not qualities found in many teenagers. And with that in mind, perhaps, states have been changing their laws when it comes to driving.

As NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports, the new rules are taking some of the danger out of learning to drive and perhaps a little of the fun.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: Sixteen-year-old Hillary Bragg lopes off the soccer field wearing a bright red uniform and an even brighter smile. This week, Bragg got her driver's license. This part may sound familiar.

Ms. HILLARY BRAGG: I celebrated, danced around a little bit. I yelled I got my license! I got my license!

SCHALCH: But listen to what happened next.

Ms. BRAGG: I just drove over to my friend's house - it was like a mile away -and we just sat in the car. We couldn't drive anywhere. No moving. It was pretty lame.

SCHALCH: Lame maybe, but Bragg will have to put up with it for a while.

Ms. BRAGG: There's a new law. New drivers can't drive anyone that isn't in their family for five months. They have a curfew, I think, like 12:00. No cell phone use in the car.

SCHALCH: In Maryland, where Bragg lives, and in more than 40 other states, the ritual of getting a license has changed dramatically for one simple reason. New drivers really are a menace.

Professor SUSAN BAKER (Public Health, Johns Hopkins University): Sixteen-year-old drivers are 10 times as likely as drivers in their 30s and 40s and 50s to be involved in a crash. They're twice as likely as 18- and 19-year-old drivers.

SHAPIRO: Susan Baker is a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University. She says the causes of those crashes fit the stereotype, as well.

Professor BAKER: Speeding, overtaking cars, driving too closely. I think there's a tremendous amount of peer pressure, perhaps to drive faster, to do things more recklessly.

SCHALCH: And the more teenage passengers, the worse it gets. Researchers have quantified the risk.

Sue Ferguson is with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Ms. SUE FERGUSON (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety): We find that one or two teen passengers usually doubles the crash rate. Three or more triples it.

SCHALCH: If the passengers are teenage boys and they're on the road at night, the risk climbs still higher.

Ms. FERGUSON: Most of their fatal - their serious crashes - involve just a single vehicle. So it's not usually because another vehicle suddenly appears from nowhere. It's because they're usually taking risks that others of us wouldn't.

SCHALCH: Changing teenagers' behavior hasn't worked. That's why states are lining up behind what's called graduated licensing.

Ms. FERGUSON: The idea here is not so much to change the way they drive, but to change the circumstances under which they drive.

SCHALCH: So instead of a quick trip to the DMV on their 16th birthday, teenagers face a longer and far more tedious rite of passage.

The first stage is a learner's permit. While the rules vary by state, teens typically need to hold their learner's permits for months, not days, and spend at least 30 hours practicing with an adult. Then comes a restricted license with passenger limits and a curfew and finally, a full license.

Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, says the states are moving in the right direction.

Mr. MARK ROSENKER (National Transportation Safety Board): You can take a look at the tremendous progress and the momentum of this issue. A number of states - as a matter of fact, the vast majority of states, I think it's 46 out of 50 states - have some form of graduated driver's licensing. We had zero 13 years ago.

SCHALCH: That's when the NTSB threw its support behind the idea.

Not all teenagers are obeying the new laws. But enough are that it's making a difference. Susan Baker of Johns Hopkins University has pulled together the data on fatalities among 16-year-old drivers from all over the country.

Ms. BAKER: We found that states that had the most comprehensive graduated driver licensing laws had the largest reductions, on average, about a 20 percent reduction in fatal crashes, whereas states that had weaker programs on average did not show any improvement.

SCHALCH: Legislators and parents pay attention to findings like these. So it's possible that soon more states will be placing more hurdles in the path of teenagers clamoring to get on the road.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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