Out of control: states make getting a driver’s license harder
DETROIT, Mich.–Imagine this: It’s night, a rainy night, and you’re on the highway behind the wheel of a car. The speedometer says 55, but cars and trucks are coming up behind you, and passing–whizzing by at speeds much faster than 55. You peer through the misty, wet windshield and see cars and trucks heading toward you, their headlights blinding you as they approach and streak past. Suddenly, you see the car ahead of you lurch and slide sideways. You put your foot on the brake then,
Do you think you have the “right stuff” to make the right driving decision under those conditions?
Experts say that many teens do not, even though they have driver’s licenses. Teens made up 5.1 percent of licensed drivers in 1994, and they accounted for 13.9 percent of traffic deaths, making motor vehicle accidents the number one killer of U.S. teens.
Most traffic accidents involving teen drivers are not the result of drinking and driving. They are the result of inexpenence.
“Physically, kids are very well equipped to drive cars,” says Jim Hedlund of the U.S. Department of Transportation. “Their reflexes are great, and their eyehand coordination is great. It’s their judgment that doesn’t work so well. We haven’t yet figured out any way to teach good judgment except through driving experience. And that takes time.”
Experts also say teens tend to take more risks on the road and to think they can do just about anything with their cars.
“Teens feel they are always right and that they are never going to be hurt whatever the decision is,” says Virginia Tucker, director of adolescent medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
How can states cut down on teen traffic accidents and deaths?
Michigan is joining other states in enacting laws that require teens to get “graduated” driver’s licenses. The laws are designed to slowly give teenagers greater driving privileges as they gain driving experience.
Michigan’s law, passed last month, allows teens to get a learner’s permit earlier–at 14 years and 9 months. But it has a three-step process that sets stricter requirements for training, calls for parents to be more involved, and limits the hours teens may drive.
The law allows a teen who completes driver’s education to receive a Level 1 license. A Level 1 license requires a parent or a licensed driver over age 21 to be in the car with the teen at all times. The teen stays at Level 1 for at least six months, and a parent or a guardian must agree to supervise 50 hours of driving, including ten hours of driving at night.
If a teen is at least 16 years old and completes Level 1, he or she can then go on to a Level 2 license. Level 2 allows the teen to drive alone at most times of the day. But he or she is barred from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. unless with a parent or a guardian over age 21.
An unrestricted driver’s license is issued only to a teen who is at least 17 years old and who has spent at least six months at Level 2.
Besides Michigan, ten other states have three-step licensing programs: California, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
How Teens Feel
How do teens feel about the new restrictions?
Many don’t like it. Chrystal Wiles, 16, got her learner’s permit two months ago in Virginia. If a proposed law is passed, she would have to wait six months to get her driver’s license.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Chrystal said of the proposed law.” I’m ready to drive now.”
The idea of a driving curfew–also part of the proposed law–doesn’t thrill her. “What happens if you want to go out with a bunch of your friends on Saturday night?” she asks.
In Michigan, 13-year-old Brenden Gunnell is not happy about what he’ll have to do under Michigan’s new law.
“I hate it,” he told a reporter. “I’m going to want to go on dates, and now my dad will have to drive me.”
But Briana Gunnell, Brenden’s 16-year old sister believes the law will make the road a lot safer.
“A lot of kids who don’t have a license don’t like the law,” she said. “But I’ve just seen too many crazy drivers my age, and they scare me.”
Some studies suggest that drivers education itself, by putting more young drivers on the road, may be increasing the accident rate. When nine school districts in Connecticut dropped driver’s education from their curricula (thus making it more difficult to get a license) there was an immediate 10 percent to 15 percent drop in the number of crashes involving 16-to-17-year-olds.
Others say that it is wrong to blame driver’s education.
“It’s the daggone stage of life teenagers are in. They’re going to make mistakes. . . they’re going to make some bad decisions,” says Dick Tyson, director of drivers’ education in Newport News, Virginia.
“We in driver’s education believe that it takes about five years for someone to become an average driver. When someone is learning a new skill, whether you’re 16 or 60, there’s a lot of trial and error.
Doubts about driver’s ed first arose following a groundbreaking study of driver training in DeKalb County, Gal, that began in 1976. The study involved 18,000 students from 24 high schools. One group received an 80-hour “safe performance” course of study that included collision avoidance. Another group received a 15- to 17-hour pre-driver licensing course, consisting of classroom work plus three hours on the road. A third group received no high school drivers’ education.
The results? The “safe performance” group showed better road skills and fewer accidents in their first six months of driving. But after six months, skills and accidents were no different for the three groups in the study. The U.S. Department of Transportation concluded: “For all practical purposes, there was no significant reduction in crashes or traffic violations for those students who received training compared to students who received no formal training.”
Soon after the results of the DeKalb study were known, schools around the country began dropping driver’s education. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, about half of the nation’s high schools offer driver’s education today.
Have students poll teens in their community about whether or not they think that most teens are safe drivers. What percentage think they are? How does that figure compare with the opinions of experts? Any drivers under the age of 21 who are caught driving under the influence of alcohol will have their licenses suspended. States, who issue driver’s licenses, that don’t enact the law will lose federal funding for road repairs. The president is urging all states to adopt a “zero-tolerance” program toward alcohol and drug abuse by teens.
Most states currently define intoxication for purposes of a drunk driving test as 0.08% to 0.1% of alcohol in the bloodstream. Under the “zero-tolerance” law any youth with a blood alcohol level as little as 0.02% could lose his or her license.
More than 2,200 young people died in alcohol-related car crashed nationwide last year.
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