Changes in laws keep teen drivers safer

for most teens, obtaining a drivers’ license means newfound freedom and independence. For many decades, it also meant something more sobering: a higher risk than any other age group that they would die on the road.

But new statistics indicate that risk is diminishing. Teen driver fatalities have fallen to a record low in Massa­chu­setts and nationwide.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin­istration, the number of teen drivers who died in car accidents in Massachusetts dropped to a low of 51 in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available. That made 2010 the third straight year that teen driver fatalities fell in Massachusetts.

Across the country, only 3,115 teens were killed in 2010, a far cry from the high of more than 8,000 teens who were killed in 1975. Even at the lower number, car accidents remain the leading cause of death among teenagers.
Mary Maguire, spokeswoman for AAA Southern New England, says the state’s move to a graduated drivers’ license with a new junior operators’ license (JOL) in 2006 is a major reason for the drop. “The JOLs have definitely been a factor. There is no doubt about that,” Maguire says.

Different versions of a graduated license system, designed to gradually grant a teen driver more privileges as he or she gains more experience on the road, have been enacted in all 50 states, starting with Florida in 1996. In Massachusetts, teens can get their learner’s permit at age 16 and must take 30 hours of a driver’s education course along with 40 hours of supervised driving with someone over 21. The driver’s education requirement is waived if they are over 18.

After six months with a permit, teens may take a road test to obtain a junior license. Junior operators cannot drive with underage passengers in the car and cannot drive at certain hours of the night without adult supervision. They face license suspension and/or fines if they violate the restrictions or receive a speeding ticket. The JOL restrictions are lifted when the licensee turns 18.

“Those laws are aimed at taking teens out of the situations that research shows are the most risky—things like driving with other teen passengers in the car and driving at night,” says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Peter Ellis, a 17-year-old from Walpole, is one of those affected by the JOL law. Ellis, who got his license earlier this year, has so far avoided getting into an accident or even being pulled over. While he readily admits he isn’t a fan of the passenger restriction or waiting so long bet­ween permit and license, he acknowledges the safety aspects. “I know that with passengers in the car, I’m probably going to crash so I just don’t do that,” Ellis says.

Another major component of the law is the requirement that parents attend a special class before their son or daughter can get their license. Maguire says the class—which Massachusetts is the first and, so far, only state to require—has been highly successful.

“The parent class has enlightened a lot of parents and made them aware of the need to place restrictions on their teens,” Maguire says.

Maguire thinks the state’s texting-while-driving law, passed in 2010, may also be a factor in the reduction in fatalities. The law bans all drivers from texting, but includes a total ban on junior operators from using cell phones in any manner while driving. An 18-year old Haverhill man was found guilty in June of killing another driver while the then 17-year-old teen was texting and driving and was sentenced to a year in jail.

“You reduce the number of distractions for teens who are the most at-risk group of drivers, and that makes a difference,” Maguire says.

But because teen crash statistics aren’t yet available for 2011 or 2012, Maguire cautioned that it might be premature to declare the ban a success. Rader also says it’s too early to tell how successful the ban actually is. A 2008 study by the Insurance Institute conducted in North Carolina found that even after a cell phone ban was enacted, teen­agers actually used cell phones while driving more than they did before the ban.

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For Ellis and other teens, economic conditions may also be at play. Because he can’t afford to buy a car and relies on his parents’ cars and gas to get him where he needs to go, he isn’t on the road very often. The statistics suggest he’s not alone. According to the federal traffic safety administration, Americans as a whole drove 1.2 percent less in 2011 than they did in 2010—a decrease of 35.7 billion miles. The Federal Highway Administration also reported that total gasoline consumption went down by 1.9 percent between 2010 and 2011.

“I would think that the high price of gasoline has had a chilling effect on teen driving,” Maguire says. “I think gas prices have led all drivers to drive less.”