TODAY THE D.C. Council is scheduled to take up legislation addressing the leading cause of death among teenagers: motor vehicle crashes. The bill, introduced by council member Kathy Patterson, would establish a much-needed graduated licensing program to phase in beginning drivers. Twenty-three states, including Maryland, have passed similar laws; Virginia has its own version. Traffic safety organizations and legislators say the D.C. bill could serve as a model for improvements in both states' laws.

The new requirements for licensing of teenagers would toughen the standards:

Learner's Permit. A holder of a learner's permit -- who must be at least 16 years old -- could have no passengers in the vehicle other than a required supervisor.

Provisional Permit. For this new permit, an applicant would have to be at least 16 1/2, with at least 40 hours' experience driving with a learner's permit; would have to complete a road test and go six months without an infraction. This permit-holder could drive unsupervised during the day but would have to be with a supervisor at night, and still could not have other passengers along.

Full License. The minimum age would be 17. A driver would have to complete at least 10 hours of additional night-time driving and go 12 months without infractions. A 17-year-old could drive unsupervised during the day, supervised at night and with no more than two additional passengers. At age 18 with a clean record, a driver would enjoy full privileges.

Safety officials note that the risk of crash involvement per mile driven by 16- to 19-year-olds is four times the risk among older drivers, and is highest at ages 16 and 17. The proposed changes would ensure that initial behind-the-wheel time would be accumulated under lower-risk conditions. The D.C. Council can set a welcome standard area by enacting this sensible, not unduly restrictive bill.