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TEENS AT THE WHEEL: A TRIBUNE UPDATE
Should 16-year-olds drive?Report says raising age would save lives
By Ted Gregory Chicago Tribune reporter
September 9, 2008
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It's a question that could reverberate across the country, wherever a new teen driver is turning a key in an ignition.
Is 16 the right age to get a driver's license?
Researchers for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety say the answer is no, and they point to statistics to back up the position that raising the driving age makes sense and would save lives.
The insurance institute has pressed the question for years. At this week's annual meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association in Scottsdale, Ariz., institute President Adrian Lund is going to push it further. Although Lund doesn't expect to lobby state legislatures, he said Monday he will advocate for a higher minimum driving age in his speech Tuesday.
Linnea Greci sees the issue a little differently. Then again, she's 15.
"I don't think it matters what age you are," the Hinsdale Central High School sophomore said Monday before hitting the road for her driver's education class, "as long as you have the practice and experience."
The institute's 17-page report collects research on the minimum driving age from the United States and countries that have higher licensing ages. The research shows states are making progress in reducing the No. 1 killer of teens—motor vehicle crashes—through graduated driver licensing. The laws ease restrictions on teen drivers as they gain experience and keep a clean driving record.
In recent years Illinois has enacted teen driving reforms, many of them after the Tribune's "Teens at the Wheel" series in 2006 examined ways that fatalities might be reduced. The state reforms included doubling the number of adult-supervised hours required behind the wheel to get a driver's license and tripling the length of time a new teen driver must possess a learner's permit. Some credit those changes for significant declines in teen driving deaths in the first seven months of this year.
But "we're still losing a lot of teens on the road each year," Lund said. Motor vehicle crashes kill more than 5,000 teenagers every year.
"This is kind of the next logical step," he said of the insurance institute's push to raise the minimum age. "Do these teens need to be driving as early as we are allowing them to drive?"
In a prepared statement for release Tuesday, the institute contends research shows "that licensing at later ages would substantially reduce crashes involving teen drivers."
The example the institute uses most prominently is New Jersey, the only state with a minimum driver's license age of 17. The report cited a study from 1992-96 in which the rate of crash-related deaths among 16- and 17-year-olds was 18 per 100,000 in New Jersey, compared with 26 per 100,000 in Connecticut, which had a minimum driver's license age of 16 and 4 months.
Neither New Jersey nor Connecticut had graduated licensing laws at the time of the study.
The report also showed that the New Jersey fatality rate fell significantly for teens after a graduated licensing law was enacted. Among the state's 17-year-old drivers, the percentage in fatal crashes dropped 33 percent after the law was enacted.
A combination of factors contributes to make teenagers poor drivers. Much of it centers on the complexity of driving and teens' tendency to speed more and use seat belts less than older drivers.
Also, the teen brain is at a particularly vulnerable point in development. Fifteen- and 16-year-olds have the logical reasoning of an adult, experts say. But their young minds' social and emotional development remains relatively immature and voraciously seeks sensual arousal, novelty and risk.
The teenage brain also is particularly vulnerable to distraction and peer pressure, and is undergoing explosive development. The front portion of the brain—which includes control of impulses, judgment and decision-making, and the coordination of multi-tasking—matures deep into the 20s, research shows.
But veteran driver's education teachers are skeptical about raising the age when a teenager can get a license.
"That's like saying we're not going to let any kid get near a pool or lake or the ocean and the drownings will go down," said Brent Johnston, a driving teacher at Hinsdale Central since 1974. "I think Illinois has gone the proper way—reward the kids who do a nice job and penalize the kids who don't. The teen driving issues are not about age and maturity as much as they are about making good choices and demonstrating exceptional behavior, whether they start that driving experience at 16, 17 or 18."
Added Ken Biggs, chairman of the driver's education department at Schaumburg High School: "Idealistically, I think it'd be great" to raise the minimum age. "But practically? No. There's no mass transit to get to work, to get to jobs."
State Rep. John D'Amico (D- Chicago), who proposed raising the driving age to 18 in 2006, and Secretary of State Jesse White, who proposed many of the reforms enacted this year, said teen driving deaths have continued dropping in Illinois since the laws were strengthened.
Both noted recent Illinois Department of Transportation figures that show 49 teens were killed in motor vehicle crashes through this July compared with 93 who died in the same period last year.D'Amico said he's satisfied for now that the reforms are working but is open to reviving a push for a higher minimum driving age if the improvements stagnate or if deaths rise. Surveys reviewed by the insurance institute show more than 50 percent of adults support higher licensing ages.
Ryan Moore, 16, of Schaumburg got his driver's license in June. He said, "I think it would be better to wait," but he needed his license as soon as possible. Both parents work, and he had to get himself from football practice to his job as a lifeguard.
"I've driven with some people who are horrible drivers even though they've been driving for a while," Moore said. "And I've driven with people who haven't been driving very long but are pretty good. Some people are ready, and some people aren't."
Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune
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