Saving Teenage Lives





In 1996, 6,319 young people age 15-20 died in motor vehicle crashes. Even though this age group makes up only seven percent of the driving population, they are involved in 14 percent of all traffic fatalities.

Section I

Introduction: The Need for Graduated Driver Licensing

The Teen Driving Problem
It has been said many times that children are our most precious resource. While parents throughout time have loved their children enormously, today's parents have taken this saying to heart in more visible ways than previous generations. From the "Caution­Baby on Board" window decals of the early 1980s to the ubiquitous "My child is an honor student at" bumper stickers of today, modern parents use the family car as a billboard to showcase their parental pride and their children's accomplishments.

But the same motor vehicle that goes from school to soccer to piano­in which Mom, Dad and the kids seem to live­may also be the vehicle in which our teenagers die. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for young people 15 to 20 years of age, causing roughly one-third of all fatalities in this age group. In 1996, 6,319 young people age 15-20 died in motor vehicle crashes. Even though this age group makes up only seven percent of the driving population, they are involved in 14 percent of all traffic fatalities. In 1996, teens were involved in more than two million non-fatal traffic crashes. Based on population projections, these numbers will go up unless we intervene. (See chart below.)

Graph of Projected 15-20 year Old Population and Motor Vehicle Crash Fatalitles

On the basis of miles driven, teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as are all drivers. Why do young drivers have such poor driving performance? Three factors work together to make the teen years so deadly for young drivers:

  • Inexperience
  • Risk-taking behavior and immaturity
  • Greater risk exposure

Inexperience: All young drivers start out with very little knowledge or understanding of the complexities of driving a motor vehicle. Like any other skill, learning to drive well takes a lot of time. Technical ability, good judgment and experience all are needed to properly make the many continuous decisions, small and large, that add up to safe driving. By making it so easy to get a driver license­by literally handing teenagers the car keys without requiring an extended period of supervised practice-driving time­we are setting them up for the risk of making a fatal mistake.

Risk-taking behavior and immaturity: Adolescent impulsiveness is a natural behavior, but it results in poor driving judgment and participation in high-risk behaviors such as speeding, inattention, drinking and driving, and not using a seat belt. Peer pressure also often encourages risk taking.

Greater risk exposure: Teens often drive at night with other teens in the vehicle, factors that increase crash risk.

Teen drivers are different from other drivers, and their crash experience is different. Compared to other drivers, a higher proportion of teenagers are responsible for their fatal crashes because of their own driving errors:

  • A larger percentage of fatal crashes involving teenage drivers are single-vehicle crashes compared to those involving other drivers. In this type of fatal crash, the vehicle usually leaves the road and overturns or hits a roadside object such as a tree or a pole.
  • In general, a smaller percentage of teens wear their seat belts compared to other drivers.
  • A larger proportion of teen fatal crashes involve speeding, or going too fast for road conditions, compared to other drivers.
  • More teen fatal crashes occur when passengers­usually other teenagers ­are in the car than do crashes involving other drivers. Two out of three teens who die as passengers are in vehicles driven by other teenagers.

Table of Crash Involvement Rates by Driver age

Effective remedies exist for controlling these risk factors and reducing traffic crash fatalities among young drivers without seriously encroaching on their need to get around. Graduated driver licensing combines a number of measures proven to be effective in fostering safer driving behavior in young drivers. In Ontario, Canada, and in New Zealand­where graduated driver licensing is in effect­crash deaths and injuries for teenage drivers have been reduced. Maryland, which has a nighttime driving restriction, and California have shown reductions in both fatal crashes and traffic violations among young drivers.

With graduated driver licensing, new drivers typically go through a three-stage process that involves their gradual introduction to full driving privileges. By restricting when teenagers may drive, and with whom, graduated driver licensing allows new drivers to gain much-needed on-the-road experience in controlled, lower-risk settings. It also means that a teenager will be a little older and more mature when he or she gains a full, unrestricted license. After the young driver demonstrates responsible driving behavior, restrictions are systematically lifted until the driver "graduates" to full driving privileges.

This manual explains what graduated driver licensing is and why it is so important for every jurisdiction to take steps towards its implementation.