They hope that safety provisions included in the transportation bill signed into law by President Obama this month will encourage states to adopt or strengthen laws intended to protect teenage drivers — and everyone who shares the road with them.
It is an effort strongly supported by Susan Vavala, who has worked in Delaware to stiffen regulations. “We knew [the driver] was a good kid. He’d been driving Kim to school every day the week before,” she said. But the combination of “inexperience, a wet road, distraction and four kids in the car” led to tragedy.
Car crashes remain the No. 1 cause of death among teenagers, killing roughly 3,000 15- to 19-year-olds in 2009. Teens’ lack of driving experience combined with their use of distracting devices such as cellphones make them the riskiest of drivers, four times more likely to crash as older drivers are, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Every state and the District has its own graduated licensing program for teen drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The programs spell out the age at which a young person can get a learner’s permit and generally require a certain number of hours of supervised training before a learner can take a driving test. After passing the test, teens enter an intermediate stage that allows them to drive without supervision but generally limits late-night driving and the number of passengers they can have in the car. These restrictions exist until the teen driver has reached a minimum age, often 17 or 18.
State programs vary considerably. In North Dakota, for example, a person can get a learner’s permit at age 14, and there are no restrictions on the number of passengers an intermediate-stage driver can have in the car, according to the insurance institute. New Jersey residents, by contrast, must be at least 16 to get a learner’s permit, and they can’t drive unsupervised with more than one passenger in the car until they get their unrestricted license at age 18.
States have also moved to address distracted driving, a problem for both new and experienced drivers. Forty-four states and the District ban text messaging by novice drivers (39 states, including Maryland and Virginia, and the District ban texting by all drivers), and 32 states — including Virginia and, beginning Oct. 1, Maryland — and the District ban all cellphone use by novice drivers, according to the insurance institute.