Fatal car crashes among the nation's youngest, most accident-prone drivers decreased sharply in the decade after most states enacted laws limiting their access to a driver's license, a new study shows.
Auto deaths involving 16-year-old drivers fell 26 percent between 1993 and 2003, a period when 46 states and the District enacted graduated licensing laws that allow fewer 16-year-olds to drive, according to the study released today by the Arlington-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Among 16-year-olds who have full driving privileges, the rate of fatal crashes has not fallen, and it remains higher than that of any age group. Researchers said the difference between the two groups points to the effect of the new laws, which keep most 16-year-olds from receiving unrestricted licenses and which are intended to curb risky practices, such as carrying teenage passengers and driving at night.
The study shows that "withholding a license is going to improve the crash picture among 16-year-olds," said Susan A. Ferguson, senior vice president for research at the institute and an author of the study. "That's a success story, because the fewer of them who drive, the fewer of them who die."
The dramatically higher crash and fatality rates for teenagers in their first year behind the wheel have prompted highway safety advocates to fight for laws that prevent them from driving unsupervised, at least until they turn 17. Sixteen-year-olds are four times as likely than adult drivers to become involved in a crash and three times as likely to die in one, national statistics show.
Motorists are at the greatest risk during their first year of driving -- with high speed, driver error and multiple passengers contributing to crashes, previous research cited by the Insurance Institute shows .
Although the rules vary by state, graduated licensing programs extend the learner's period, the time that teenagers must drive with an adult in the car. Further, they limit driving under conditions linked to crashes. The first graduated licensing program was introduced in Florida in 1996. By 2003, 47 jurisdictions had the programs, including the District, Maryland and Virginia.
Lawmakers are considering legislation to further restrict teenage drivers. In Maryland, the state Senate gave tentative approval yesterday to a bill that would prohibit new drivers from carrying passengers younger than 18 during the first six months of an 18-month provisional license. The measure, which is expected to win final approval today, has not cleared the House of Delegates.
In Virginia, the Senate and House have approved measures that would restrict cell phone use by teenage drivers, and are working to resolve differences between two versions of the bill.
According to the study, 938 16-year-old motorists nationwide were involved in fatal wrecks in 2003 -- more than one-fourth fewer than in 1993, when 1,084 died in such crashes. That is despite an 18 percent increase in the number of 16-year-olds in the nation, the study found. At the same time, the percentage of fully licensed 16-year-olds declined -- from 42 percent in 1993 to 31 percent in a decade.
Also striking, the institute's Ferguson said, was a 39 percent drop in fatal crashes involving a 16-year-old drivers carrying other teenage passengers.
"The probability of being in a crash increases with each additional [teenager] in the car," she said. The figures show that "there's a fundamental change in the way young passengers are being transported."
In the region, crash rates among teenagers have been more erratic, pointing to differences in the graduated licensing programs, as well as the difficulty in drawing conclusions from relatively few accidents.
In 1993, there were 27 fatal crashes in Virginia that involved a 16-year-old driver, eight such crashes in Maryland and none in the District. In 2003, there were 12 fatal accidents involving 16-year-old drivers in Maryland, 16 in Virginia and one in the District.
This year, a string of deadly accidents involving new drivers has moved legislators to try to toughen the region's licensing laws, and to place new restrictions on the youngest drivers -- an effort that Ferguson applauds.
"I think there's clearly more we need to do," she said.