How states are working to improve teen driver safety

If teen drivers continue to text, speed, drive drunk and engage in other risky behavior, car crashes will remain their No. 1 killer.

Efforts in some states, such as New Jersey and Texas, are aimed at reducing these roadway tragedies. Car accidents account for 3,500 – nearly half – of all teen deaths each year in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health.

Instead of scare tactics, state lawmakers and safe driving organizations are getting teens more involved in creating safe driving programs and launching innovative initiatives tied to Graduated Drivers Licensing (GDL) laws. All states have GDL laws, which phase in full driving privileges by age 18, but laws in some states are tougher than others.

“States are certainly being proactive. They’re trying a number of different approaches,” says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

“There’s a new group of teen drivers every year, so it’s a constant re-education process. You can’t assume that just because you’ve educated one group of teens, you don’t have to do it with the next one.”

Teens are overrepresented in all deadly crashes, Harsha says. Teens make up about 15 percent of Americans, but teen drivers account for up to 30 percent of injuries in car crashes, according to the governors group.

Here is a look at innovative ways that lawmakers, state officials and safe-driving advocates are trying to prevent car crashes involving teen drivers. Car insurance companies are providing money and research for some efforts.

New Jersey

The innovative effort

Anyone age 16 to 20 holding a driver’s permit or intermediate license (a probationary license granted after six months of driving with a permit) under New Jersey’s GDL program must display a reflective decal on their front and rear license plates. 

The decal requirement aims to help reduce teen crash rates by giving police a tool to identify probationary drivers and enforce GDL restrictions related to passengers, nighttime driving, cell phone use and seat belts. Critics say the decal could encourage stalking or could spur police to “profile” teen drivers, but a survey of police agencies conducted by the state’s Division of Criminal Justice found no evidence of this. No other states have a decal requirement; New Jersey’s decal requirement, enacted in 2010, is known as Kyleigh’s Law.

How it’s working

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that since the decal requirement took effect, tickets issued for violating GDL restrictions increased by 14 percent among drivers with an intermediate/probationary license and crashes among intermediate drivers fell by 9 percent. The hospital’s study reviewed licensing and crash data from January 2008 through May 2011. The decal program prevented crashes involving an estimated 1,624 intermediate drivers, the study found.


The innovative effort

The Texas Transportation Institute’s Teens in the Driver Seat program began in 2003 and expanded to Georgia in 2008 and California in 2011.  The program creates young driver safety advocates. Teens in the Driver Seat develops and provides free resources such as posters, safety programs and competitions.

“We like to see them doing something at least once a month that keeps this issue on the radar,” says Russell Henk, program manager for Teens in the Drivers Seat.

The program is in more than 500 high schools in Texas, 55 in Georgia and about 20 in California. It’s financed by the Texas Department of Transportation, Georgia Department of Transportation, California Office of Traffic Safety and State Farm.

How it’s working

Texas is the only state to see a decline in fatal crashes involving teen drivers each and every year since the program began. The crash rate declined 45 percent from 2003 to 2010, according to a July 2012 report from the Texas Transportation Institute. The state’s GDL law also was passed in 2002.

Researchers also found a nearly 15 percent average reduction in teen crashes in Texas counties with Teens in the Driver Seat efforts, as well as a 30 percent reduction in cellphone use by teen drivers and a 14 percent increase in seat belt use among teen drivers and passengers in those counties.


The innovative effort

If a teen violates the nighttime driving or passenger restrictions of Connecticut’s GDL law, his or her license can be suspended on the spot for 48 hours. The program does not limit the number of times a teen license can be suspended under the 48-hour rule.

How it’s working

Since the law took effect in 2008, more than 1,500 licenses belonging to 16- and 17-year-olds have been suspended, according to an August 2011 report by the state’s Center for Teen Safe Driving.

More safe-driving efforts on the way

Giving teens ownership in bringing down crash rates could lead to more innovation, says Pam Fischer, head of the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition.

“As much as adults think we know everything, we don’t,” Fischer says. “We don’t know what is going to necessarily resonate with a particular group of teens and what’s the best way to reach them.”

Here are four efforts that could help:

1. Georgia is thought to be the first state to create an all-teen driving commission to advise the state on ways to reduce teen driving accidents, injuries and deaths. “I’ve not heard of other states doing this,” Fischer says. “It’s time for us to listen to the teens and allow them the opportunity to weigh in on the issue and come up with the ideas.

2. The Allstate Foundation and American Academy of Pediatrics launched a pilot program in spring 2012 that encourages pediatricians to talk to teens and their parents about driving. Physicians use resources such as a parent-teen driving pact, and parents enforce driving curfews and passenger limit for teen drivers. 

3. In Indiana, Rule the Road events give teens the chance to practice driving skills through activities such as a distracted driving simulator as well as a road course that demonstrates the effects of drunk driving.

4. After an August 2011 crash that killed four New Jersey high school football players heading to a team breakfast, the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition and Allstate Foundation began collaborating with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body for high school sports. The groups are educating coaches and other adults about the GDL program and how they can talk to teens about safe driving, especially after late-night practices, games and other activities.

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