By Hugh C. McBride

Getting a driver’s license remains one of the most eagerly anticipated milestones of teen life. But years of disheartening statistics have inspired legislators and safety advocates across the country to question whether 16-year-olds are really ready to get behind the wheel.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States, with 36 percent of all teen fatalities occurring on our nation’s roadways. The risk is particularly high for drivers between the ages of 16 and 19, who are four times as likely as older drivers to be involved in a crash.

“There’s no way some of these kids should be driving,” Julia Rodriguez said in a March 26, 2006 article in the Boston Globe. “They turn 16 and think they have the right to drive. But we can tell them no.” Rodriguez’s daughter, Amanda, was killed when the car in which she was a passenger hit a tree – a crash that also took the life of the 16-year-old driver.

Rodriguez spoke to the Globe for an article that reported on an effort by the Massachusetts legislature to raise the state’s minimum driving age from 16 to 17½. The teen driving bill that was eventually signed into law by the state’s then-governor, Mitt Romney, didn’t include this 18-month increase, but it did add Massachusetts to the list of states that have adopted graduated licensing provisions as a means of easing young drivers onto the road in a more controlled manner.

Teen Brains: Under Construction
In the “Parent-Teen Driving” section of its website, the American Driver & Traffic Safety Education Association expresses what may be the greatest risk to teenage drivers and those with whom they share the road: “It is important for the teen to exhibit strong resistance to peer pressure. . It is imperative that teen drivers exhibit maturity in decision making and avoid risk taking.”

But with peer pressure, immaturity, and risk-taking among the hallmarks of young life, is it reasonable to expect teenagers to suddenly shun these influences once they’re given access to the ignition switch? If recent research is to be believed, the answer to this question is “no.”

A 10-year study of brain development by the National Institute of Mental Health showed that the parts of the brain that control high-level functions such as problem-solving are among the last to achieve full functionality. A May 14, 2004 press release announcing the findings noted that “areas with more advanced functions – integrating information from the senses, reasoning, and other “executive” functions (prefrontal cortex) – mature last.”

As the study’s co-author, Dr. Jay Giedd, told Washington Post staff writer Elizabeth Williamsen for her Feb. 1, 2005 article, the research indicates that “teenagers’ brains are not broken; they’re just still under construction.”

Though he cautioned against assuming a direct cause-effect relationship between brain development and personal behavior, Giedd acknowledged that his research shows promise as an aid in the effort to make teens safer drivers. “We can determine what is the relationship between brain development and driving ability and what we can do to make it better,” he said.

Increased Standards, Heightened Awareness
From science labs to state legislatures, the performance of the teen brain has come under increased scrutiny. While researchers explore biological impediments to safe driving, policy-makers throughout the United States are increasing the standards young drivers have to meet in order to earn their licenses, and safety experts are working to raise awareness about the issues that cause the most problems for teen drivers.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Agency has devoted a section of its website to this issue, and has launched a three-pronged initiative founded on what the organization says are the three best ways to improve safety among teen drivers:

  • Increase seat belt use among teenagers.
  • Implement graduated driver licensing in all states.
  • Reduce teens’ access to alcohol.

In 1996, after similar laws had been passed in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, Florida became the first U.S. state to implement a graduated license program. Though such programs may vary among jurisdictions, an NHTSA brochure says that the best graduated license laws include the following components:

  • Supervised learner’s period – Ideally beginning at age 16 and lasting for at least six months, this learning period allows new drivers to practice while in the presence of a licensed driver over the age of 21.
  • Intermediate license – After completing the learning period (and, in some states, documenting a prescribed number of practice hours behind the wheel), teens who pass written and driving tests are granted intermediate licenses, which limits when and with whom they can drive. Many states do not allow intermediate license holders to drive between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and most also ban them from transporting more than one underage passenger at a time.
  • Full licensing – Drivers who complete the intermediate phase (which usually lasts about a year) without committing certain moving violations are then granted full driving privileges. In addition to resulting in fines or other penalties, violations committed while driving with an intermediate license also often delay the driver’s ability to graduate to a full license.

Following Florida’s lead, all 50 states and the District of Columbia now have some form of graduated licensing system in place. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has rated the effectiveness of each jurisdiction’s laws on a four-tiered scale that considers age, passenger, and time-of-driving restrictions, as well as the length of time spent at each licensing level and the existence of driver-education requirements. As of June 2008, 41 states and the District of Columbia had earned “Good” or “Fair” ratings from the IIHS, with nine states labeled “Marginal,” and none considered “Poor.”

Statistics Show Efforts Are Paying Off
Preliminary reports indicate that toughening the requirements for teen drivers has resulted in a safer driving environment.

According to the CDC, 16-year-old drivers in states with “strict and comprehensive” graduated license programs have experienced a 38 percent reduction in driving fatalities and a 40 percent decrease in injury-causing crashes.

In addition to improving safety statistics, the Denver Post has noted that heightened standards have also resulted in fewer young drivers getting behind the wheel in the first place. A March 6, 2008 article by Post staff writer Jason Blevins cited the following statistics:

  • In 1999 – the year Colorado implemented tougher teen driving laws – 60 percent of the state’s 16-year-olds had licenses.
  • By 2006, the percentage of 16-year-old drivers in the state had shrunk to 28 percent.
  • Between 1995 and 2006, the number of Colorado drivers aged 19 and younger decreased as well, falling from 178,000 to 150,000.
  • These state trends reflect a national pattern. In 1996, 44 percent of all 16-year-olds in the United States were licensed drivers, but by 2006 the rate was only 30 percent.

Joy Grissom, a trooper with the Colorado State Patrol, told Blevins that tougher laws and increased awareness efforts are having their desired effect. “We have a lot of education out there now that reminds teenagers of the huge responsibility it is to drive a vehicle. . I think our kids are pretty smart and some of them know they aren’t quite ready and they want to wait.”