Terrified to see your teenager behind the wheel? You're not alone. But a new study finds tougher state licensing laws have led to a decrease in fatal accidents, at least among 16-year-olds. That's the good news.
But here's the rub. Some kids are waiting until they're 18-years-old to get their driver's licenses. At this point, they're considered adults, and they don't have to jump through the hoops required of younger teens. They can opt out of driver's ed. And they are not subject to nighttime driving restrictions or passenger restrictions.
"[Older teens] are saying, 'The heck with your more complicated process,'" says Justin McNaull, director of state relations for the American Automobile Association. At 18, teenagers can, in many cases, get their license in a matter of weeks.
It's one explanation for the latest findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers at the University of North Carolina and the California Department of Motor Vehicles analyzed more than 130,000 fatal teen crashes over 22 years.
They found that tougher licensing laws have led to 1,348 fewer fatal car crashes involving 16-year-old drivers. But during the same period, fatal crashes involving 18-year-old drivers increased. They were behind the wheel in 1,086 more fatal accidents.
States have made the licensing process more rigorous in many ways: longer permitting times, driver's ed requirements, and restrictions on nighttime driving and carrying fellow teenage passengers. Experts say all of these requirements help give teenagers the experience they need on the road. "In the last 15 years, we've made great strides in getting the licensing process to do a better job in helping teens get through it safely," says McNaull.
California has seen a big drop in 16-year-olds getting their driver's license. Back in 1986, 27 percent got licensed. By 2007, the figure dropped to 14 percent.
"We have more novices on the road at 18," says Scott Masten of the California DMV and an author of the study. And some of them may not have enough experience under their belts to face risky conditions. Masten says this may help explain the increase in fatal crashes.
It's not clear whether there are significantly fewer 16-year-olds behind the wheel in other states because there's no national database. But anecdotally, experts see this as a trend.
"There's a belief that graduated licensing has led to a delay," says Anne McCart, a senior vice president at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
A survey of teens conducted by the Allstate Foundation found that there are many reasons teens are delaying the process of getting a license. Some say they don't have a car or can't afford it. Others report that their parents are not available to help them, or that they're too busy with other activities.
But parents who do want to be more proactive can refer to the tips the AAA has compiled on how to keep teens behind the wheel safe. And they might also consider another recent study, which showed that starting the school day a little bit later seems to reduce the accident rate for teen drivers.
DAVID GREENE, host: The current generation of 16-year-olds has a pretty good driving record, at least among those who've actually gotten their licenses. A new study finds there are fewer fatal car crashes compared to decades past due in part to tougher state laws. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY: Getting your driver's license is a big deal. At least, that's how I remember it. Back in the 1980's when I was a teenager, it seemed everyone got their learner's permit as close to their 16th birthday as possible, quickly followed by a license. But times have changed. Take the story of 19-year-old Ren Kwan, who grew up in San Francisco. She started preparing for her driver's test at 16, but she failed it - twice.
REN KWAN: I was so nervous, and I really wasn't confident on the road. So the first time I failed because I was driving too slow. And then the second time it was because I hit the curb right away.
AUBREY: Kwan did pass the test a year later and she's never had an accident. Looking back, she says all of the requirements of California's teen licensing laws - everything from the mandatory driver's ed, which she took twice, to all of the supervised driving - probably did pay off.
Justin McNaull works for AAA. He analyzes teen driving laws in all the states.
JUSTIN MCNAULL: In the last 15 years, we've made great strides in getting the licensing process to do a better job at helping youngsters get through it safely.
AUBREY: He says Kwan's story squares with the latest research. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week, finds that tougher licensing laws have led to about 1,300 fewer fatal car crashes involving 16 year olds in the period between 1986 and 2007. And that's a lot of lives.
MCNAULL: So we know that giving kids the chance to learn to drive under safer conditions, not late at night and not with a bunch of teen passengers in the car, will help give the teen a chance to make those first couple thousand miles of driving much safer and much more survivable.
AUBREY: So here's where the story of teen driving gets a little complicated. More training and more practice is saving the lives of 16-year-olds. But the same study also finds that the number of 18-year-olds dying behind the wheel has actually increased. There were about 1,000 more fatal crashes during the same period. So what gives? Study Author Scott Matsen of the California DMV has one explanation.
SCOTT MATSEN: We have more novices on the road at age 18 and 19 than before. That's what we see in California.
AUBREY: Fewer 16-year-olds are getting their licenses. In California, there's been a huge drop - from about one-third of 16-year-olds driving back in the 1970's down to, at latest count, just 14 percent. And what happens when teens postpone getting a license until they're 18 or older? Well, they're treated like adults. They're not required to take drivers ed or practice with supervision.
MATSEN: They're saying the heck with your more complicated process, I'm going to turn 18, and I'm not going to have to take driver's ed. I'm not going to have to do all this practice with mom and dad, and I'll get my license then.
AUBREY: Ah-ha. So it's sort of the unintended consequence of the laws?
MATSEN: Yes, it's a side-effect we're seeing.
AUBREY: There's only one state, New Jersey, that requires young adults through the age of 21 to complete the same training as younger teens. And Anne McCart, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says it's paying off.
ANNE MCCART: Reduced crashes, you know, across the board for teenagers.
AUBREY: As for California teenager Ren Kwan, she says she knows a lot of people who waited until 18 and skipped out on drivers ed, which she says is not a good move.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.