Teens want tougher driver's licensing standards, survey says

Mary Lou Jay

Are teens getting more savvy about the dangers of driving? A new national survey shows that instead of wanting to make it easier for their peers to get on the road, most 15- to 18-year-olds support restrictions on driver's licenses for their age group.

In a 2010 survey conducted for the Allstate Foundation, almost three-fourths (74 percent) of the 1,300 U.S. teens questioned said that they favored graduated driver licensing (GDL) for beginning drivers. GDL programs vary by state, but key elements include a learning period, limits on late-night driving, passenger restrictions, and the prohibition of cellphone use and texting, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Only after teens complete all stages are they granted a standard driver's license with full privileges.

Even teens who weren't in favor of all of the GDL restrictions favored limits on cellphones (85 percent), texting (93 percent) and nighttime driving (78 percent), according to the Allstate survey. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed also believed teens should be allowed either no passengers or just one passenger.

Teens have reason for concern. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes account for more than one in three teen deaths. Every day in the United States, eight teens from ages 16 to 19 die in automobile accidents, and teen drivers in that age group are four times more likely than older drivers to die in a crash. These statistics are reflected in teens' high auto insurance rates.

These figures have led almost all states to adopt three-stage GDL programs for teen drivers. North Dakota, with only two stages, is the exception. The Governors Highway Safety Association reports that 21 states and the District of Columbia limit cellphone use by new drivers, and that 47 states and the district restrict nighttime driving for this same group.

GDL programs vary widely by state, however. In Montana, for example, teens can get a learner's permit at age 14-and-a-half , complete six months of supervised driving and get an intermediate license (with some restrictions) at 15. After a year of driving, Montana teens can get a full-privilege license at age 16. By contrast, New Jersey teens have to be 16 before they can get a learner's permit, 17 before they can get an intermediate license and 18 before they can obtain full driving privileges. New Jersey drivers under age 18 can carry only one non-family passenger; after six months of driving, Montana teens can carry up to three passengers until they turn 18.

GDL programs may be a contributing factor in teens waiting to get driver's licenses until they're ready -- and in the reduction of teen deaths in vehicle crashes. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says there has been a 40 percent reduction in the number of teens killed in car crashes between 1996 (when the first states adopted GDL programs) and 2009.

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