Foon Rhee

What more can we do to stop teens from dying in car crashes?

A teenager takes the Allstate Safe Driving Challenge in Detroit in 2012 by trying to text while behind the wheel.
A teenager takes the Allstate Safe Driving Challenge in Detroit in 2012 by trying to text while behind the wheel. Detroit Free Press/MCT file

Far fewer teen drivers are getting killed, thanks to stricter laws, greater awareness and safer vehicles.

The number of fatal crashes involving teens plummeted from about 7,500 in 2005 to fewer than 3,900 in 2014 – an accomplishment that shouldn’t be undervalued. Just think of all the young people whose lives weren’t cut short, and all the families not torn apart.

But as a detailed new study from the Governors Highway Safety Association points out, that progress could be at risk, and more could be done to save lives.

Young drivers are still nearly twice as likely as 35- to 40-year-olds to be involved in a deadly collision. And the decline in fatal crashes has been greater for younger teens (ages 15 to 17) than older teens (18 to 20), 56 percent compared to 44 percent.

The safety association says that’s at least partly because graduated licensing laws – which ban teens from late-night driving, limit who can be in the car with them, and require training and behind-the-wheel practice – end at age 18. Some teens even wait to start driving until they turn 18 to detour around the restrictions, according to the study.

New Jersey is the only state that keeps the rules in place for all new drivers until age 21, but the governors association urges that all states follow suit.

Some advocates in California hope to do just that, with legislation to extend graduated licensing to older teens. All safety groups should get on board.

In California, teens can get a learner’s permit at age 15 1/2 . Under California’s graduated licensing law that took effect in 1998, to get a provisional driver’s license, a teen under 18 must hold a learner’s permit for at least six months, complete classroom and behind-the-wheel training, and get at least 50 hours of supervised practice, including 10 at night. To get a full license, teens must keep a clean driving record and comply with nighttime driving and passenger restrictions for one year, or until they turn 18.

Teens who wait until they turn 18 to apply for a license, however, only need to pass the written knowledge test to get a permit and can get a full license once they pass a behind-the-wheel test.

While the law treats 18-year-olds as adults, the governors association says using that age as the dividing line for driving rules doesn’t follow the science. Even older teen drivers don’t have the judgment of experienced drivers, and they’re especially susceptible to being distracted by a cellphone and passengers.

The governors group also recommends that state agencies partner with colleges to promote safe driving. That’s already happening in California, with a drunken driving awareness program on 41 campuses with nearly 1 million students.

I’m all for any efforts to make younger drivers think twice about driving dangerously, such as National Teen Driver Safety Week earlier this month. With all the attention on guns, we can’t forget vehicle collisions are still the most common way teens get killed.

While the general trend line is encouraging, there are warning signs. Nationally, there was a 10 percent uptick last year in fatal crashes involving teen drivers, the first increase since 2006. In California, teen driver deaths increased from 72 in 2013 to 91 in 2014, and total teen deaths in crashes rose from 216 to 220.

It seems like a good time to look at changing the law before the death toll rises more.

By the numbers

The number of younger teen (15-17) and older teen (18-20) drivers in fatal crashes, and the rate per 100,000 licensed drivers in the U.S.:

  • 2010: Younger, 1,313, 35.2; Older, 3,290, 36.1
  • 2011: Younger, 1,133, 32.6; Older, 3,229, 35.2
  • 2012: Younger, 1,091, 33.6; Older, 3,221, 36.5
  • 2013: Younger, 986, 30.4; Older, 3,005, 33.3
  • 2014: Younger, 1,009, 32.9; Older, 2,876, 34.0

Source: Governors Highway Safety Association