There's a lot to cheer about when it comes to teenage drivers, especially 16 year-olds. Although their crash rates remain higher than those of adults, real progress has been made in safeguarding these young beginning drivers.
Two years ago the Institute reported a sharp drop in the fatal crash rate for 16-year-old drivers after states began enacting graduated licensing laws in the 1990s. Fatal crash involvement based on the population of 16 year-olds fell 26 percent during 1993-2003.
A new study from the Institute shows continued progress in reducing fatal and nonfatal crashes per population of 16-year-old drivers, and these gains haven't been offset by higher crash rates among older teenagers. Between 1996 and 2005 both fatal and police-reported crashes per population fell about 40 percent for 16 year-olds, about 25 percent for 17 year-olds, and about 15-19 percent for 18 year-olds.
Teenage drivers long have been considered to pose the greatest risk to themselves and other road users, and for good reason. Based on crashes of all severities, the crash rate per mile driven for 16-19 year-olds is 4 times the rate for drivers 20 and older. Risk is highest at age 16.
A closer look at the statistics shows that the picture is improving. The number of teens killed in crashes in 2005 was the lowest since 1992, despite the largest teen population since 1977. During 2005, 3,889 passenger vehicle occupants ages 16-19 were killed on U.S. roads, and an estimated 1.9 million were involved in police-reported crashes. This was 8 percent fewer deaths and 20 percent fewer police-reported crashes than occurred during 1996 for this age group. Much of the progress has occurred in areas targeted by many graduated licensing laws: fatal nighttime crashes and fatal crashes involving multiple teenage passengers.
Nighttime fatal crashes per population among 16-year-old drivers decreased 48 percent during 1996-2005. This compares with a 40 percent decline in daytime fatal crashes. Nonfatal crashes declined too. Nighttime police-reported crashes fell 47 percent for 16-year-old drivers and 29 percent for 17 year-olds.
One of the most dangerous scenarios is when a teen driver ferries other teens. This kind of fatal crash fell 41 percent between 1996 and 2005. At the same time, fatal crashes involving 16 year-olds driving alone fell 24 percent. The proportion of fatally injured drivers with positive blood alcohol concentrations fell by 16 percent for 16 year-olds and 5-9 percent for 17-19 year-olds from 1996 to 2005.
"We didn't set out to evaluate the effectiveness of graduated licensing laws, but our findings are consistent with the increased presence of such laws, many of which restrict nighttime driving and driving with teenage passengers in the vehicle," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research and one of the authors of the study. Graduated driver licensing delays full licensure while allowing beginners to get their initial driving experience under lower risk conditions. Since 1995, all states have implemented some elements of graduated licensing.
"We can't definitively point to graduated licensing or other factors that would explain the big drop in fatal crashes among teenagers," McCartt says. "It may be because teens were licensed for less time during the year they turned 16 or because restrictions on when and with whom they could drive reduced their exposure. It also could be that the beginners in this study drove more safely because of longer learner's permit periods. Some or all of these factors may have contributed to the decline."
Graduated licensing: state law update
Arizona and Nebraska are among 6 states that have improved their graduated licensing systems for beginners. For example:
- Arizona increased supervised driving hours to 30, added a night driving restriction from midnight to 5 a.m., and limited passengers to no more than 1 younger than 18. The state extended to 6 months the holding period for learner's permits.
- Nebraska added a cellphone ban for drivers younger than 18 and a minimum 6-month holding period for learner's permits. It limited provisional permit holders to no more than 1 passenger younger than 19.
- Massachusetts raised to 40 the number of supervised driving hours learners must accrue before getting a junior license.
- Ohio restricted holders of probationary licenses to no more than 1 passenger, other than family members, unless supervised by an adult. The state set a curfew for 16-year-old drivers of midnight to 6 a.m. and a 1-5 a.m. curfew for 17-year-old drivers.
- Virginia added a cellphone ban for beginners with intermediate licenses. The restriction ends at age 18.
- Idaho increased the permit period for supervised instruction to 6 months and restricted drivers younger than 17 to no more than 1 passenger younger than 17.