Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is taking aim at the single biggest killer of teenagers -- car crashes. For the second year she's sponsoring a bill to require all states to make 18 the minimum age for an unrestricted driver's license. At this point only a few states and DC keep teen drivers from unrestricted licenses until age 18; the others are divided between 16 and 17-1/2. States that let a driver have an unrestricted license at 18, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, include Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey and Virginia. Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and Ohio requires drivers to be 18 to drive at night. The article above, from Congress.org, said 12 states plus DC, which means they're including Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, when young drivers turns 18 their licenses automatically become unrestricted; otherwise, restrictions are removed after a year of driving without a crash or conviction if the driver has completed a driver's education course.
There are good statistical, practical reasons for this change. 'Motor Vehicle Traffic' accounts for 39.98 percent of fatalities for people age 16-19, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
From The Center for Disease Control's teen drivers factsheet:
How big is the problem?
In 2009, about 3,000 teens in the United States aged 15–19 were killed and more than 350,000 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor-vehicle crashes.
Young people ages 15-24 represent only 14% of the U.S. population. However, they account for 30% ($19 billion) of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among males and 28% ($7 billion) of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among females.
In 2006, the motor vehicle death rate for male drivers and passengers ages 15 to 19 was almost two times that of their female counterparts.
Who is most at risk?
The risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than among any other age group. In fact, per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash.
Among teen drivers, those at especially high risk for motor vehicle crashes are:
- Males: In 2006, the motor vehicle death rate for male drivers and passengers ages 15 to 19 was almost two times that of their female counterparts.1
- Teens driving with teen passengers: The presence of teen passengers increases the crash risk of unsupervised teen drivers. This risk increases with the number of teen passengers.
- Newly licensed teens: Crash risk is particularly high during the first year that teenagers are eligible to drive.
Insurance companies have been strongly behind the senator on this bill -- not surprising, because it costs them money. And it's not just the driver who is at risk. According to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association's page on 63 percent of teenage passenger deaths in 2008 occurred in vehicles driven by another teenager and 81% of teenage motor vehicle crash deaths in 2008 were passenger vehicle occupants. I looked for, but didn't find, the statistics for casualties suffered by adults or younger children in teen-driven accidents; I'm sure they exist somewhere because I've seen news accounts of parents and other siblings hurt in accidents sometimes, though, to be fair, there were also accounts of accidents where the teen driver was not at fault.
Gillibrand's bill, the `Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act of 2011' or the `STANDUP Act' (S.528), would require all states to move to graduated driver licensing, a two-step process that would require new drivers under age 21 to undergo a six-month minimum learner's permit stage and a six-month minimum intermediate stage before achieving a full unrestricted license.
The learner's permit stage would require a driver training course, plus a minimum of 40 hours of behind-the-wheel training with a licensed driver who is at least 21 years old, and the presence of a licensed driver who is at least 21 years of age at all times while the new driver is behind the wheel. Attainment of an unrestricted license would be delayed if the new driver is convicted of drunk driving, misrepresenting his/her age, reckless driving, driving without a seat belt, speeding or any other driving-related offense.
It isn't stated in the text of the bill, but it is likely that the new driver must pass all state-level driving tests in order to reach the intermediate stage. At this stage, a new driver can't use a cell phone or "any communications device" in a "nonemergency situation", which I assume means during driving, as opposed to while the car is parked by the side of the road. The intermediate driver cannot drive at night, or drive with more than one person in the car who is less than 21 years old and is not a family member, unless a licensed driver over 21 is in the vehicle. Regardless of when the driver reaches the intermediate stage, he or she will still be at that stage until age 18.
If the bill is passed, all these would be regulations at the federal level -- in addition to any state-level regulations, since states determine testing, regulation and actual licensing. States can apply for incentive grants to pay for training and enforcement during the first three years after the law would take effect; however, states that do not enforce the law would find their federal highway funds withheld until they complied.
This page, from the Governors Highway Safety Association, shows the variation among the states in current licensing practices. (I would have copied the table over, but the typeface is tiny and would not be improved by moving it here.) A 14-year-old can get a learner's permit in Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan (14 years 9 months), Montana (14 years 6 months), North Dakota, South Dakota. The minimum age at which a new driver can have an unrestricted license is less than 17 years in Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming, though some of those states put restrictions of various kinds on new drivers at that age.
Every policy change has pros and cons, and the pros here are pretty clear -- saved lives, fewer accidents, less of a burden upon hospital emergency rooms, fewer insurance payouts. Those are big gains. But there are likely to be a few problems, which are not within the scope of the bill, but which will have to be faced by teens and their families.
The problems that I can see -- and I don't see any of them as offsetting the gain of fewer deaths and injuries -- would occur in rural and suburban areas, where there is little to no public transportation. Families that have relied on teens with cars to run errands and pick up other family members may have to reorganize their schedules, especially at the end of daylight saving time when it gets dark a lot earlier all at once, so that a 17-year-old who was driving legally to pick up siblings after soccer practice or dance class might no longer be legally able to do so. In the northern states, it can get pretty dark at 4:30 p.m. in November, which isn't even rush hour yet in a lot of metropolitan areas. Families in these states where teens help out by providing transportation for older siblings or parents who do shift work may have to reorganize their transportation, which can be difficult in areas without buses or subways, or where bus routes have been cut back so that there are only one or two during a day instead of every few hours.
In the past, in some states where I've lived, "night" was legally defined for teen drivers as an hour after sunset, as opposed to a specific time, though teens who were employed were allowed to commute later than that; from what I can see in the websites I've consulted for this post that may no longer be true, but I haven't reviewed the rules in every state. If night is still officially an hour after sunset anywhere, teens in those places who work part-time while going to high school might faces transportation problems. Some states specify certain hours as "night" now, usually somewhere between 10 p.m. and midnight to 5 or 6 a.m., but this varies by state. Gillibrand's bill doesn't specify when night occurs, so that may be left up to the states. If so, it may be possible for individual states to allow for the effect of the law on employed teens in ways a federal law might not, by allowing them to drive to and from work if they don't go elsewhere.
How many teens are employed? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which does not break down its numbers as I would wish, 18.6 million from January to June, 2010, with employment in July (summer vacation) of 48.9 percent of teens, the smallest percentage since 1948. Unemployment in July 2010 was 4.4 million, reflecting the weak job market, according to the BLS. And according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey, an average of 4.24 percent of teens aged 16-19 were employed from 2005-2008, ranging from a high of 4.34 percent in May 2006 to a low of just over 3.8 percent in July 2008, with little recovery since. Most teens, in other words, aren't going to be commuting to or from a part-time job after sunset.
I suspect that there might also be social changes as a result of this bill, depending on the legal definition of "night". Without public transportation as a backup, it might be harder for rural teens to go on dates or to school functions unless they end early. How much of the audience at an evening high school basketball, soccer or football game consists of teens who drove themselves there? Or at a high school dance, if these still exist other than annual proms? Or school concerts, plays, debates, and other events more connected with classes? And then there are movies, which were the main non-school entertainment in my youth. Even the early show often ends after 9 p.m., and in rural America every small town no longer has its own movie theatre, or its own plaza or mall with a multiplex. It might take half an hour or an hour to get to the movies, and that's without even stopping for a burger beforehand or a milkshake afterward to talk over the plot.
I'd like to think that the ultimate effect of this bill would be entirely positive, with increased carpooling among teens and adults for social events, or more incentive to increase access to public transportation within smaller municipalities. Perhaps all the effects will be positive, after all -- if it passes.
Gillibrand's bill, now before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has five cosponsors: Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Thomas Carper (D-DE), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Gillibrand sponsored a similar bill last year, S.3269, which died in that same committee, and the corresponding House bill last year went to the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit and never returned. The members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee include: Senate Majority Committee members Barbara Boxer (Chairman), Max Baucus, Thomas R. Carper, Frank R. Lautenberg, Benjamin L. Cardin, Bernard Sanders, Sheldon Whitehouse, Tom Udall, Jeff Merkley and Gillibrand herself; Senate Minority Committee members James M. Inhofe, David Vitter, John Barrasso, Jeff Sessions, Mike Crapo, Lamar Alexander, Mike Johanns, and John Boozman. I would hope that all those elected officials would be sensitive to the possibility of saving the lives of (mostly) future voters in their jurisdictions. On the other hand, considering the presence of so many heavy-hitting Republicans on this committee and the general lack of collegiality evident in the current Congress, I wouldn't be surprised if they were doing their best to stall the efforts of a first-term Democratic senator to increase highway safety, simply because she is a first-term Democratic senator.