There are two main reasons why teen drivers are more likely to get into accidents: inexperience and “distractibility.” The state’s expanded graduated license laws, which went into effect in February 2010, are designed to address those traits.
New York State Police Troop G Traffic Supervisor Sgt. Dan Larkin called the changes “long overdue.”
“Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are more likely to engage in risky behavior,” Larkin said. “They are more likely to be using social media, and they’re not as good at multi-tasking. They’re more likely to be speeding, and they’re more likely to be distracted by other people. All those factors result in a higher risk level for being involved in a crash.”
The state’s new graduated driver license laws haven’t been in effect long enough to generate data to indicate an impact, but studies have shown they significantly reduce the number of car accidents involving teenagers.
According to a study by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, states with at least five of the seven recommended graduated license components have fatal crash rates for 16-year-old drivers that are 38 percent lower, and injury crash rates that are 40 percent lower, than states with none.
“Everybody in the research community and the highway safety community agree that (graduated licenses) is the way to bring down deaths in that age group,” said Judie Stone, president of Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group. “These laws have proven to be very effective.”
Larkin said, “The states that have enacted GDL laws have seen a decrease in teen crashes, and I’m confident we’re going to see the same results here.”
Motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death for teens, and the fatality rate is highest for 16- and 17-year-olds within the first six months after getting their license, according to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 16- and 17-year-old death rates due to crashes increase with each additional passenger, and approximately two-thirds of teen passenger deaths occur when other teenagers are driving.
Under the state’s expanded graduated license laws, young drivers must:
- Hold a junior permit for six months before a junior or senior license may be issued.
- Undergo 50 hours of supervised driving before scheduling a road test, an increase of 30 hours. This supervised driving time must include 15 hours of driving after sunset.
- Limit the number of non-family passengers under age 21 to one when not driving with a parent or guardian — who must be licensed. Previously, junior license holders were permitted to drive with two passengers under age 21.
In New York, junior licenses are issued to drivers under age 18, while full licenses are issued to drivers over age 18, or 17-year-old drivers who have a high school or college driver education course. Junior permit holders are barred from driving between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. unless under the direct supervision of a parent or guardian, while junior license holders are only permitted to drive directly between home and school or work during those hours.
“The GDL program is designed to progressively introduce young drivers to the skills required to safely operate a motor vehicle,” said Chuck Conroy, highway safety program representative for the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee. “The hope and intention is to improve the capability and skills of young drivers.”
Conroy said that crashes involving young drivers often result from causes that were “extremely avoidable,” such as speeding in poor weather conditions, following vehicles too closely, driving too fast down narrow streets and failing to yield.
Conroy said that parents generally support the state’s graduated license program. “I’ve never had a parent vehemently object to the GDL program once they were presented with the facts,” he said. “A lot of people are unaware of it. But parents understand. They get it.”
In an email, Montgomery County Undersheriff Jeff Smith said that that department has not really had any issues with the graduate license laws, “however I think many of the results may be unknown. ... We may be seeing the younger generation pay attention to the law just because of fear of prosecution. If that works, great.”
Larkin said that when the new laws went into effect, “there was a fair amount of confusion, just as there is with any new law.
There were a lot of inquiries, and even some police officers didn’t know much about it.” But now, “we’re seeing growing compliance as people become more aware of the laws. My sense is that most people are up to speed on it.”
New York has now adopted six of the seven graduated license components recommended by advocacy organizations such as Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety.
The one component the state is missing is a law restricting full licenses to those ages 18 and older, with no exceptions.
Right now, New York allows 17-year-olds who have passed a driver’s education program to receive a full license.
Stone’s group is pushing for a federal law called the STANDUP Act, which would establish minimum federal requirements for state graduated license laws and encourage all states to adopt laws that meet those minimum requirements within three years.
Stone said that teen drivers lack the maturity and experience of older drivers.
“It’s hard for teens to make judgments, to respond to all the things that happen when you’re driving,” Stone said. “They’re very easily distracted. With the preponderance of cellphones, it’s very easy to think you’re able to multitask and not realize how multitasking strains your ability to stay on task. That’s true for adults, but it’s especially true for teens.”
The state’s graduated licensing program has evolved over the past decade. In 2002, Gov. George Pataki signed a bill requiring drivers under age 18 to hold a learner’s permit for at least six months before they can take a road test and obtain a junior license.
In 2009, a state law went into effect barring drivers of all ages from texting or using any portable electronic device while the vehicle is in motion.