No one wants a teenager to die or be injured behind the wheel. Yet teen drivers pose the greatest risk to themselves and others when driving.
The fatal crash rate per mile driven for 16- to 19-year-olds in the U.S. is nearly three times the rate for drivers 20 and older, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Vehicle-related injuries are the leading cause of death among teens.
There are reasons why young drivers face a greater risk of getting into crashes and dying. They do not have the driving experience needed to be safe on the road. Their biological and emotional development make them more likely to act impulsively. They are more likely to speed, make driving errors and follow too closely. Research shows the risk increases when there are multiple teen passengers and when teens drive at night.
So those who complain about increased restrictions on young drivers face a tough question. At what point does it become OK to stop improving laws to lessen the real risk that teenagers will die or be injured on the road? How many deaths and close calls are acceptable?
Maine isn’t there yet.
New restrictions are coming soon, and they’re warranted. A law passed this year takes effect Oct. 9 and will require someone with a learner’s permit to drive 70 hours, instead of 35, before applying for a license. That includes 10 hours of night driving, instead of five; the driver must be accompanied by a parent, guardian or licensed driver at least 20 years old.
As a result of other changes, the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, instead of driving schools, will now issue learner’s permits, and driving schools will be subject to stricter financial rules. They’ll have to obtain a surety bond to protect consumers in case they go out of business.
Critics say the largest change — to double the number of driving hours for someone on a learner’s permit — will burden young drivers and their parents. Instead, it would be a benefit. As it stands now, Maine is behind most states. Only four require fewer than 40 hours, according to the Maine Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association. Most states require 50 to 70 hours.
There is no magic number of hours that will prepare young drivers, but research shows driving is a learned skill and takes time. “Experience is the single most important factor in teens’ driving safety,” according to the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina.
The National Cooperative Highway Research Program’s “ Guide for Reducing Collisions Among Young Drivers” states a “substantial amount of practice is needed — at least 6 months — before a novice driver begins to develop the savvy required to be a proficient and safe driver.” Doing so with a responsible adult helps the young driver develop real world experience — safely.
No parent wants to lose a child in a crash, and no teenager wants to go to the funeral of a friend. Parents and teens shouldn’t look at the new rules as an encumbrance but a chance to learn and, most importantly, live.