Editorial: Older teens and crashes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Thereís no doubt that graduated driverís licensing programs have reduced fatal crashes among 16-year-old drivers in North Carolina and other states. But a new study raises a perplexing question for safety researchers: Why are they seeing an increase in fatal accidents among 18-year-olds?
The nationwide study, published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined fatal crashes from 1986 to 2007 involving 16- to 19-year-olds. The study found that states with strong graduated-license restrictions had 26 percent fewer fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers, compared to states with relatively weaker restrictions. But for 18-year-old drivers, the findings were reversed: They experienced 12 percent more fatal crashes in the strong GDL states.
ěThe take-home message is that GDL programs do work,î said Steve Marshall, UNC professor of epidemiology and a co-author of the study. ěBut as they are currently implemented across the U.S., we are missing the opportunity to save even more teen lives.î
All states now have some form of graduated licensing, and safety experts cite several factors explaining why the programs have reduced fatalities among 16-year-olds. They mandate more time behind the wheel while supervised by an adult, restrict nighttime driving, the number of young passengers accompanying teen drivers and generally reduce teensí exposure to high-risk driving conditions. However, researchers canít explain the increase in fatal crashes among 18-year-old drivers. One possible factor, however, is that more teens are waiting a couple of years to get their licenses. In a nationwide survey of almost 1,400 teens published last month in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention, 1 in 4 who were 18 and hadnít obtained a license cited the hassle of licensing requirements as a reason.
If teens are waiting until theyíre 18 to apply for a license, then thereís an obvious answer ó raise the age limits for GDL requirements. In fact, thatís what New Jersey did. Its GDL restrictions apply to all first-time applicants under 21, and it has seen lower crash rates not only for 16-year-olds but 17- and 18-year-olds, too. While more research is needed, states with strong GDL regulations, like North Carolina, may need to look at making those restrictions apply to older teen drivers as well as 16-year-old novices. States with weaker restrictions should beef up their requirements.
Hereís the take-away again: Graduated licensing programs have saved the lives of young drivers, but it appears they could be improved to better protect older teens as well.