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CDC Suggests Restricting Privileges of Teen-age Drivers

June 9, 1994

ATLANTA (AP) _ Nearly every town has someplace like it.

In Bennington, Neb., it’s a hill called the ″State Street Jump.″ Recently a car hit it at 77 mph and skidded out of control, killing three teen-agers and leaving a fourth facing homicide charges.

When young drivers are tempted to hurtle over hills or drag-race down deserted highways, a driver’s license becomes a license to thrill - sometimes, even a license to kill. So federal health officials say states should consider restricting them.

The proposal came Thursday in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on risky driving among teens in Gwinnett County, an Atlanta suburb. A study conducted by the CDC, Georgia and local officials found that more than a quarter of the crashes in the county involved at least one teen-age driver.

″Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 16-to 20-year- olds,″ said Dr. Jennifer Luallen, a CDC epidemiologist. ″We feel that many - if not most - of these deaths are preventable.″

Nationwide, about 6,000 youths ages 16-20 die each year in traffic accidents. Teens represent about 7 percent of the country’s population but account for about 17 percent of the victims of fatal crashes.

To trim those numbers, the CDC suggests restrictions that would be lifted gradually during the two years after a teen-ager gets a license.

Those could include prohibiting unsupervised nighttime driving by teen- agers, zero tolerance of drinking, requiring proper use of seat belts, and limiting the number of passengers, distance traveled and kinds of roads on which teens may drive.

″The beauty is that it recognizes that driving is a complex task to master fully and allows a young driver to gradually gain experience,″ Luallen said.

The CDC report is only a suggestion and not an official policy statement of the federal agency.

Such graduated restrictions are used in Australia, New Zealand and Ontario, Canada, according to the CDC. In New Zealand, where graduated licensing was begun in 1987, motor-vehicle deaths among drivers ages 15-17 have dropped 40 percent, Luallen said.

Teens themselves acknowledge they’re not the best of motorists. About a third of the 291 Gwinnett County teens studied said they sometimes took risks - tailgating, speeding or running a yellow light, for example - because it made driving more fun. Sixty-four had had a crash resulting in injuries.

But Leslie Fisher, 15, of Tuscaloosa, Ala., who drives with a learner’s permit, said more restrictions won’t help and could interfere with her volunteer work at a hospital.

″The permit’s to help you get experience and learn how to drive,″ she said. ″I think that with the permit, you get comfortable enough with the car.″

Officer Lane Tyson, a member of the Gwinnett County Police Department’s Strategic Traffic Accident Reduction team, said it often takes an accident to persuade teen-agers to drive safely.

″Younger drivers think they’re invincible,″ Tyson said. ″They are not aware of the hazards in driving a 2,000-pound missile down the street full of flammable fuel.″

In the Nebraska accident on April 1, 17-year-old Kristen Decker was charged under a new state law intending to make it easier to prosecute teen drivers for drunken driving by setting a blood-alcohol level lower for teens than for adult drivers.

Still, alcohol isn’t needed for dangerous teen driving.

On Wednesday, 19-year-old Christopher Passalaqua was sentenced to 60 days at a halfway house and three years’ probation and was suspended of his driving privileges in connection to a car crash that left one victim unable to walk.

He was driving 84 mph near Akron, Ohio, in November and his car collided with an oncoming car. The accident left the other driver injured so badly that paramedics thought she was dead. Passalaqua was convicted last month of aggravated vehicular assault, reckless operation, speeding and other offenses.

States set their own regulations for licensing. Many teen drivers obtain a learner’s permit, which allows restricted driving.

In the last 15 years, Maryland, California and Oregon have experimented with graduated licensing for teens, said Jerry Tannahill of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those programs found that the accident rates dropped about 10 percent a year among the teens affected.

The highway safety agency wants to determine why those programs succeeded and will soon award about $1.2 million in grants to study graduated licensing programs.

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