• U.S.

Putting Limits on Teen Drivers

7 minute read
Wendy Cole Henderson

Since Kindergarten, they had been known as “the crew.” Still a close-knit group in high school, the five Henderson, Nev., boys were all delighted when Sean Larimer turned 16 and in 2003 became the first to get his driver’s license. Sean’s mom, Susan Larimer, a hospital nurse who was in the midst of a divorce, was happy about it too. “I thought I needed him to drive,” she recalls. So Susan gave her son permission to drive around with the crew one evening just 63 days after he passed his road test.

As was customary during his outings with friends, Susan and Sean checked in with each other by cell phone several times. But while awaiting his return, Susan dozed off. Just after 1 a.m., the phone startled her awake with the news every parent of a teen dreads. Her son had smashed her ’98 Pontiac Grand Am and was in the hospital’s trauma unit. Three of the boys in the car had been killed, the fourth injured. Sean, who had been drinking heavily at a party that night (reportedly as much as eight beers in an hour), served two years in juvenile lockup for driving under the influence of alcohol and reckless driving. He cannot get his license back until he turns 21. Susan, shaken by the tragedy and determined to spare other young drivers and their parents similar agony, has lobbied state lawmakers to make the licensing process for teen drivers lengthier and more safety conscious. “I’m not making excuses for his choice to drink,” she says. “But if we had tougher laws”–like prohibiting newly licensed teens from transporting other minors–“Sean would not have been out driving with his friends that night.” In October 2005, Nevada put in place a graduated licensing law, which phases in driving privileges as teens gain experience and maturity.

Getting a driver’s license remains a signal milestone for teens in their impatient journey toward adulthood–and for their parents, eager to liberate themselves from constant chauffeuring duties. But car crashes are the main cause of death for U.S. teenagers, killing about 6,000 drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 each year. That’s more fatalities for this age group than those caused by guns and drug overdoses combined. And the younger and less experienced the driver, the worse the danger. Drivers ages 16 to 19 have a fatality rate four times as high as that of drivers 25 to 29.

Experts say that parents who assume that simply reminding their kids to buckle up and watch the speed limit miss the central problem: the adolescent brain may be unable to handle the responsibilities of driving. Researchers with the National Institute of Mental Health have shown that the parts of the brain that weigh risks, make judgments and control impulsive behavior are still developing through the teen years and don’t mature until about age 25.

Those findings–and aggressive lobbying by auto-safety advocates–have helped push 45 states to adopt some form of graduated driver licensing, or GDL, which lengthens the waiting period before teens can obtain a full “go anywhere, anytime” driver’s license. Slowing down the process has slowed down the accident rate. Per-capita crashes have fallen 23% among 16-year-old drivers in California since its strict GDL law was enacted in 1998, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reported in August. The state’s late-night crashes were down 27%, and crashes with teen passengers were down 38%. Similar drops have occurred in other states. Despite those impressive results, however, legislators have balked at imposing additional measures that could make teen drivers even safer.

Studies suggest that nighttime driving is particularly dangerous for teens, and curfews are urged. “Most accidents involving teens occur before midnight,” says Susan Ferguson, senior vice president of research for the IIHS. “So the smartest laws go into effect earlier.” But last year nine states introduced measures to rein in teens’ nighttime driving privileges, and only one–Nevada–passed such a law. “A lot of adults think, I used to drive at night with my friends, so what’s the harm?” says Judith Lee Stone, president of the nonpartisan Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington. “It’s hard to change people’s thinking unless there’s a crash involving someone they know. Then people get it immediately.” This year six states–Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky–have considered new or additional nighttime restrictions, but only Kentucky’s bill passed, propelled, in part, by the death of the 17-year-old granddaughter of state representative Tom Burch of Louisville, who was the sponsor.

Nevada is one of the last states to join the decade-long movement to restrict teen drivers, but its law is now among the most comprehensive in the nation. It requires teen drivers to be off the road by 10 p.m., earlier than the midnight or 1 a.m. curfews in other states (six states still have no nighttime limits at all). Nevada also set a six-month waiting period between permit and licensing, mandates at least 50 hours of parent-supervised driving experience that must be tracked in a written log, and forbids newly licensed drivers to transport other youths for three months. “The more teens in the car, the greater the risk,” says Ferguson. Goofy, adolescent yammering in the backseat isn’t the only distraction posing a threat. Ferguson says the mere presence of peers can induce kids to take risks they otherwise wouldn’t, often because they’re trying to impress their passengers.

The changes are already producing positive results. In Las Vegas, collisions involving teen drivers were down 18%, to 1,155, for the first eight months of the year compared with the same period in 2005. In the Larimers’ hometown of Henderson (pop. 250,000), there have been two fatalities, but only one teen has been ticketed for violating the driving curfew, and not one has been nabbed for illegally carting around friends. Police admit that they are more likely to call parents than write up a violation, believing that a more informal approach is as much a deterrent as sending the family through the court system.

Some parents are ambivalent about the law and are not convinced that the restrictions should apply to their children. Becky Jeffries of Las Vegas, whose daughter Kristilyn, 17, had three fender benders in the first year she was licensed, doubts that enforcing the 10 p.m. curfew will keep her daughter any safer. “She’s not going to get any better by being held back. She might as well be in control of her own destiny,” Becky says.

Donna Botti and her daughter Angela, 16, share those sentiments. On a recent Saturday evening as Angela was getting ready for a friend’s sweet-16 party at a downtown Vegas club, she belatedly noticed the phrase “Parent Drop-off and Pickup Preferred” on her invitation. “How stupid is that? I have my own car,” she scoffed. Although the festivities were supposed to end at 10 p.m., Angela had no intention of racing home in her shiny ’05 Hyundai Tucson to make curfew. In fact, she and her parents said they were unaware that nighttime restrictions for teens existed until being interviewed for this story. Donna’s sunny expression momentarily turned pained when she was asked whether she would allow Angela, who was chauffeuring two pals that evening, to ignore the law: “I don’t want to feel like an uncaring mother, but truthfully, I’m not worried about her.”

That kind of statement makes Susan Larimer cringe. “People would like to believe Sean’s crash was an isolated incident,” she says. “But the second your kid drives away under his or her own power, you have no idea what can happen. If this nightmare can happen to our family, it can happen to anyone.”

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