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Teenage driver study sends lawmakers back to drawing board

A study about teenage driving confirmed that tougher licensing laws for 16-year-olds reduced deadly accidents among the age group but increased them among 18-year-olds.
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Written by Andrew Nusca, Former editor on

A new study about teenage driving confirmed that tougher licensing laws for 16-year-olds reduced deadly accidents among the age group but increased them among 18-year-olds.

The nationwide study, published Wednesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association, found that there have been 1,348 fewer deadly crashes involving 16-year-old drivers since "graduated driver programs" were first put in place in 1986.

On the other hand, there have been 1,086 more fatal crashes that involved 18-year-olds -- an improvement, but not quite what lawmakers had in mind. The crashes, it seems, were largely delayed until two years later.

The study's findings suggest that when you first start driving, you're more likely to be involved in a serious car collision. Age, it seems, ain't nothin' but a number.

A team led by California Department of Motor Vehicle researcher Scott Masten made several hypotheses about why, despite more training, the crashes were happening later:

  1. Many teenagers simply wait until age 18 to get a driver's license, instead of deal with the extra restrictions for driving at age 16 or 17. This puts more inexperienced drivers on the road later.
  2. Teenagers actually participating in graduated driver license programs simply aren't getting enough practical driving experience with "co-drivers" required by those programs. In other words: Mom and Dad are too protective while in the car, and the teenager is too timid when they're present, avoiding vital learning experiences.

The study shows that driving, like any other activity -- be it cooking or writing or playing a sport -- requires lots of practice before mastery is achieved.

The problem with that comparison: when you cook you burn dinner; when you write you misspell; when you play a sport you lose a game; but when you crash you might kill.

The study's findings may prompt lawmakers to go back to the policy drawing board and rethink the terms of their graduated driving programs to neither coddle nor expose new drivers too much.

The results also open the door further for automakers to subtly assist drivers in operating their vehicles better. Many new hybrid electric vehicles include alerts and other indicators to help drivers drive less aggressively in an effort to conserve fuel; similarly, sensor-laden cars help notify the driver if a crash is imminent. The next killer app: teen mode?

The results also support other research stipulating that teenagers have 10 times more crashes as adults not because they're reckless, but because they make simple mistakes such as failing to scan the road in front of them or becoming distracted.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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