Stricter laws cut down on teen drivers’ risky behavior

Tamara E. Holmes

With teenagers accounting for three times as many fatal crashes as all other drivers, it’s no wonder that car insurance rates for young people generally are higher than those for other groups. But a new study shows that limiting teens’ driving privileges cuts down on teen drinking and driving, which may lead to lower accident rates and lower insurance premiums in the long run.

Car accidents are the leading cause of death among U.S. teens, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The combination of drinking and driving is a major contributor to teen-related crashes. In fact, about one-fifth of young drivers who were involved in fatal crashes had alcohol in their systems, according to NHTSA.

But researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found that limiting certain teen driving behaviors reduces the number of teens that drink and drive. Graduated driver's licensing (GDL) laws place restrictions on teen drivers for a designated period of time, giving them more freedom as they gain driving experience. For example, teens might be restricted from driving at night or driving with more than one other passenger in the car for the first year that they're licensed. According to the study, teens in states that have the strictest GDL laws are less likely to drink and drive or to get into a car with another driver who has been drinking.

The laws that had the biggest effect were those that limited nighttime driving, restricted the number of teen passengers in a vehicle and provided the most adult-supervised driving practice. One reason the GDL laws may be making a difference is that they give teens fewer opportunities to party behind the wheel.

“We do speculate that nighttime curfews may help to prevent teens from attending some social functions that happen at night like teen parties where drinking alcohol is more likely to occur,” says Patricia Cavazos-Rehg, one of the study’s authors and a research assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University.

Saving lives, saving money

While saving lives is the most important goal of GDL laws, studies show that the stricter limitations also can save billions of dollars a year. In 2011, the Allstate Foundation and the National Safety Council released the License to Save report, which found that 2,000 lives and $13.6 billion would be saved if all states adopted comprehensive GDL laws, which included supervised driving practice, nighttime driving limitations and passenger restrictions, says Kyle Donash, a spokesman for Allstate. Comprehensive GDL laws also typically require that teen spend a certain amount of time with a learner’s permit, waiting until they're at least 17 to have full licensing privileges.

“The most deadly year of a person’s life is the year that they get their driver’s license, and 16-year-olds generally have the highest crash risk,” Donash says. “If licensure is delayed through (GDL laws), you can assume that 16-year-olds would be greatly impacted in a positive way.”

According to the study, the money saved would come from a reduction in crash-related expenses, including insurance costs, wage and productivity losses, medical expenses, vehicle damage, and police and legal costs. Employers, state and local governments and citizens are the ones most affected by those costs through taxes, fees and car insurance premiums.

Putting a premium on safety

Since the claims history of a particular group affects the entire group’s insurance rates, a widespread national decrease in teen-related crashes for a lengthy period of time eventually could lead to lower rates for young people as a whole. Some insurers already reward teen drivers that take extra safety precautions. According to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, some companies offer up to a 10 percent discount for teens who take a formal driver's training course.

Even if teen rates don’t go down across the board, every family can keep their premiums from going up even further by preventing teen drivers from engaging in risky behavior behind the wheel.

Based on the Washington University School of Medicine study’s findings, Cavazos-Rehg suggests that parents do three things to lower their teen drivers’ risk -- regardless of GDL laws:

• Limit teen driving to daytime hours. “The strictest states have curfews before 9 p.m.,” Cavazos-Rehg says.
• Keep friends out of the car. The states with the strictest laws limit teen drivers' passengers to family members.
• Ensure newly licensed teen drivers have adult supervision at all times. “In the strictest states, teens are supervised by an adult until they turn 17 years old,” Cavazos-Rehg says.

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