• U.S.

Too Young To Drive?

4 minute read
Jodie Morse

When their high school let out at noon one Friday last month, Loren Wells and her four best friends embarked on two time-honored teenage traditions. First they went to the mall to shop for gowns for the junior prom this spring. Then they piled into Loren’s black Chevrolet Corsica to go for a spin. At 3:45 that afternoon, a few miles from her home in Media, Pa., Loren’s car began to drift off the highway, the sort of mistake seasoned drivers make–and correct–all the time. Sixteen-year-old Loren, who had got her license just 2 1/2 months earlier, lurched back too far, lost control of the car and plowed into a tree with such force that everyone in the car was killed. The brand-new prom dresses did not go unworn. Three of the girls were buried in them.

For teens, there’s no sweeter rite of passage than getting a driver’s license. But an increasing number of them are driving to their deaths. While fatalities for most drivers have dropped in the past two decades, traffic deaths of newly licensed 16-year-olds surged about 50% between 1975 and 1996. Even more troubling than the rising body count are the reasons behind it. Alcohol, the main culprit in teen accidents in the ’80s, is now much less of a problem, thanks to a major educational blitz. Instead, safety specialists blame the sort of naive errors that killed Wells and her friends. Citing cutbacks in driver education by schools, experts contend that young motorists simply have inadequate skills. Sean McLaurin, a highway-safety specialist for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, laments, “It’s a silent epidemic.”

A growing number of states are looking for a cure. After years of doling out licenses to 16-year-olds with a day’s worth of classroom instruction and six hours of on-the-road practice, 24 states have passed graduated licensing laws that heavily restrict the youngest drivers. Similar proposals are pending in more than 15 other states. Though they vary in severity, these laws typically have three stages. First, at age 15 or 16, comes a learner’s permit, with which the teen must clock up to 50 hours of adult-supervised driving. Then, about six months later, the teen can get a provisional license. Finally, the teen can get a full license, provided there have been no accidents or violations.

Some states, including California and Florida, have gone a step further, barring teens with provisional licenses from driving late at night, when the risk of accidents is higher. And six states have passed more radical laws prohibiting teens from driving with other teenagers in the car. “I’ve always believed that you put more than one teen in a car and their IQs go down,” says Sandy Grasinger, who lobbied for the California law after her 15-year-old daughter died in an accident. “I did the same thing–radio going, hollering and talking and having fun.”

It’s too soon to tell whether the laws make for smarter drivers. But preliminary accident statistics in some states indicate they may be helping. In 1997, the first full year of graduated licensing in Florida, fatal and injury crashes among 15-to-17-year-olds fell 9%, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Still, there are doubters–and not just freewheeling teens. After years of playing chauffeur to so many sleepovers and swim practices, some parents find their own freedom limited by parental-supervision requirements. New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson has been vocal in his opposition to the graduated licensing bill making its way through that state’s legislature. “[I] got my scooter license at 13,” Johnson told the Albuquerque Journal. “I didn’t want to be the guy that makes that harder for some kids.” Safety officials have another worry: passenger and curfew restrictions–like well-intentioned seat-belt laws–are almost impossible to enforce.

But advocates insist that just knowing they could get caught is enough to make teens more vigilant. The biggest deterrent may be the stories of kids like Loren Wells. That’s why, besides pushing his state to adopt a stricter graduated licensing law, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge is taking an extra precaution. “I cut out the articles about those girls,” says Ridge. “And I’ve saved them to remind my own children down the road.”

–With reporting by Ann Blackman/Washington, William Dowell/Media and Nancy Harbert/Albuquerque

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