A new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study confirms what the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition has been saying since its founding in January 2011, Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) works to reduce teen crash risk. But the IIHS’ latest focus on teens goes even further suggesting that when states adopt strong GDL provisions, fatal crashes among 15-17 year-olds could be halved.
What does IIHS consider strong provisions? A permit age of no younger than 16, at least 65 hours of supervised practice driving, a minimum licensing age of 17, no driving after 8 p.m., and no teen passengers. If that sounds draconian, keep in mind that car crashes are the number one killer of teens and no other age group has a higher crash risk. When you look at individual states, not one has all of these provisions. Connecticut, however, comes the closest with a permit age of 16 and a ban on teen passengers during the intermediate license stage. Neighboring New York, meanwhile, permits at 16, licenses at 16 1/2, restricts driving after 9 p.m., and requires teens holding a permit to log 50-hours of supervised practice driving. If both of these states addressed the short-comings in their GDL provisions, they could see 17 and 24 percent reductions, respectively, in their teen driver fatalities.
How does New Jersey measure up? The Garden State has the oldest licensing age in the nation at 17. We’re the only state with that requirement, one that has not only earned us plenty of praise, but research has proven save lives. But when it comes to driving at night, transporting teen passengers, and ensuring permit holders get plenty of practice, based on IIHS’ assessment we’re falling down on the job. That’s because New Jersey’s GDL program allows a teen holding a probationary (intermediate) license to carry one passenger and drive until 11 p.m.
Keep in mind that both of these provisions were strengthened in May 2010 following enactment of recommendations made by the New Jersey Teen Driver Study Commission. Prior to that date, teens could transport one non-family member passenger and as many family members as there were seat belts (a provision difficult to enforce) and drive until midnight. Recognizing that just one teen passenger increases a novice driver’s crash risk by 50 percent and 40 percent of teen fatal crashes happen after 9 p.m., the stronger provisions were warranted.
What about a standard for ensuring that teens get plenty of practice in the permit phase of our state’s GDL program? New Jersey is just one of four states (we share this dubious distinction with Arkansas, Mississippi and South Dakota) that doesn’t require teens to log a minimum number of practice hours when they’re learning to drive. Following the recommendation of the Teen Driver Study Commission, safety advocates and legislators worked diligently to get the provision included in our GDL program, but it was pocket vetoed by the Governor in January. (A bill calling for a practice hours standards was reintroduced in January by Assemblymen Amadeo, Rumpf and Romano, but it has yet to be acted upon.)
Recognizing that any effort to strengthen our current GDL program is likely to be nixed by the current administration (and that’s unfortunate since the IIHS study found that New Jersey could reduce teen fatal crashes by 25 percent by following its guidelines), I’m calling on parents to get educated about how New Jersey’s GDL works and leverage it to help your teens survive their most dangerous driving years. While having provisions that save lives memorialized into law will ensure not only the safety of our teens, but other roadway users (61% of the people killed in teen driving crashes in 2010, weren’t the teen drivers but their passengers, other car drivers and pedestrians, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), teen driver safety must begin at home.
Ensuring your permit holder gets plenty of practice -- the Coalition suggests at least 5 hours a week over 12 months (the minimum permit holding period for a New Jersey 16-year-old) to reach IIHS’s 65 hour standard -- is critical since the only way he’ll learn to drive is to drive. If your teen, like mine, plays a sport, he’ll spend as much as 8-10 hours a week practicing and preparing for games. I would argue that making time to practice driving is critical for his very survival, since car crashes kill more teens than the next three leading causes of death for this age group combined.
As for driving with other teens and at night, parents should view New Jersey’s GDL provisions as the MINIMUM standard and restrict their newly licensed teens -- especially during the first 30 days of independent driving, the deadliest time -- from carrying other passengers for at least 3-6 months and ensure they’re not behind the wheel after 9 p.m. Other states have these provisions in place and teens continue to be involved in after-school activities, as well as work and socialize. Yes, it might be inconvenient to chauffer your teen a bit longer (what’s another 3-6 months when you’ve been doing it for the past 16 years), but if it means that he’ll lead a long, healthy and productive life, I’d say it’s worth it.