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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Should States Raise Driving Age?

Influential Auto Safety Group Believes So

A powerful auto safety group is taking aim at a longstanding rite of passage for 16-year-olds by calling on states to raise the age for getting a driver's license to 17 or even 18.

A research group funded by the auto insurance industry, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), conceded the idea is "a tough sell," but noted that auto accidents are the leading cause of death among teenagers.

"The bottom line is that when we look at the research, raising the driving age saves lives," IIHS President Adrian Lund said. He planned to present the proposal recently at the annual conference of the Governors Highway Safety Association in Scottsdale, Arizona.

It comes as no surprise that young adults hate the idea.

Diamante White, of Reading, Pa., got her permit in July. "I would really be upset because I've waited so long to drive," said the 16-year-old. She said learning to drive is a "growing-up experience."

Most parents agree. They also prefer not having to chauffeur their teens to school, sporting events and any number of other places.

Margaret Menotti, a mother in Uxbridge, Mass., asked, "Do we really want our kids dependent upon parents for virtually everything until they go to college, can vote and serve their country?"

Menotti contended that preventing teens from driving would only give them less reason to be responsible. Some parents also think it ironic that this discussion is occurring just as a group of college presidents have proposed lowering the drinking age to 18.

Institute researchers have compiled decades worth of data from New Jersey, the only state that issues licenses to 17 year olds. Studies indicate that the overall rate of teens killed in New Jersey accidents has been consistently lower than in some nearby states.

A study from the 1990s revealed that the rate of crash-related deaths among 16- and 17-year olds were 18 per 100,000 in New Jersey, compared with 26 per 100,000 in Connecticut. Researchers said that those rates have fallen even further since both states introduced graduated driver's license programs.

Graduated licensing has become the national standard in the past 15 years. It requires teens to log more miles driving with a parent or other responsible adult before they drive alone. Though these rules are often difficult to enforce, many states tie these stricter standards to declining teen crash rates.

Over 5,000 U.S. teens die each year in car crashes. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, the rate of crashes, fatal and nonfatal, per mile driven for 16-year-old drivers is almost 10 times the rate for drivers ages 30 to 59. Many European nations and other industrialized countries have a driving age of 17 or 18.

Like many in the public health sector, Dr. Barbara Gaines, trauma director at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, welcomes a debate on raising the driving age.

"Getting the highest of the high-risk drivers away from the wheel probably isn't a bad idea," said Dr. Gaines.

But even the Insurance Institute officials who propose raising the driving age agree it is not the only option.

According to Gaines, teen drivers in the Pittsburgh area who have committed moving violations must attend a "reality education" program at her hospital. They tour the intensive care unit and talk with young drivers who have been in serious crashes.

By banning teens from using cell phones while driving, imposing stricter driving curfews and expanding supervised driving time, Delaware instituted tougher laws without raising the driving age, according to Andrea Summers, who coordinates the teen driving program for the Delaware Office of Highway Safety.

Even New Jersey is proposing to lengthen the time a young driver has a permit, from six months to 12.

Yet there are those who believe we are too concerned about teen drivers, and not enough about other drivers who cause serious problems on the road.

Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at University of Southern California who studies crash statistics, cites federal data from 2007 showing that drivers ages 25 to 34, as well as those ages 45 to 64, were almost two times as likely to be involved in alcohol-related fatalities as 16- to 20-year-old drivers.

"The intense focus on teens diverts our attention from the real threats to public safety: speeding and driving while intoxicated," Sternheimer said.

Online courses are now available to educate drivers on the rules of the road and the latest defensive driving techniques. Try it today!

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