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More States Giving Teen Drivers the Yellow Light

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Oct. 2, 2001 -- Driving remains a rite of passage for most American teens, but is it a right? Should turning 16 and passing a driver's test be all that is required for full driving privileges? More and more states are saying "no" and are implementing programs designed to phase in young drivers. Now two new studies suggest the approach is having dramatic benefits in lowering rates of accidents and deaths.

Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have adopted a three-stage system known as graduated driver licensing (GDL) for teen drivers. Though individual components of the system vary from state to state, each state requires a supervised learner's period and an intermediate driving period with certain restrictions before a license with full driving privileges is granted.

Reviews of accidents from Michigan and North Carolina, two states that recently implemented the three-tiered approach, show a significant reduction in crashes among 16-year-olds in the two years since graduated licensing was adopted. The overall crash risk for this age group in Michigan declined by 25% during the study period. A similar reduction was seen in North Carolina, and fatal crashes among 16-year-olds in that state dropped by 57%. The findings were reported in the Oct. 3 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

"The magnitude of the reduction we saw was really astounding," Robert D. Foss, PhD, of the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, tells WebMD. "The impact of this one intervention is much greater than any other traffic safety measure we have seen."

Anne T. McCartt, PhD, says the graduated license approach has been adopted by so many states because there is an obvious need to address the issue of teen driving safety. Car accidents are the most common cause of death among teenagers in the U.S., accounting for nearly four out of every 10 teen fatalities. And 16-year-old drivers have higher crash rates than drivers of any other age, including older teens. A 16-year-old driver is almost three times as likely to be involved in a car accident as an 18-year-old, according to figures from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Sixteen-year-old drivers are more likely to be involved in accidents that involve driver error, speeding, and other passengers in the car. And a 16-year-old is twice as likely to be involved in a fatal crash while driving at night than during the day. For this reason, night driving restrictions and restrictions on teen passengers are common components of graduated licensing programs.

"The theory is that you ease them into independent driving situations by initially limiting high-risk situations like nighttime driving," McCartt tells WebMD. "Michigan and North Carolina have two of the most extensive GDL programs in the nation, and their results may help convince more states to adopt [such programs]." McCartt, a senior associate with Preusser Research Group in Trumbull, Conn., specializes in highway safety research.

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