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Why Are State Laws Failing to Prevent Teen Driver Deaths?

Metzger Wickersham
Why Are State Laws Failing to Prevent Teen Driver Deaths?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of teen death in the United States. The CDC reports that, in 2017 (the latest year for which data is currently available), approximately 300,000 teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19 were treated in emergency rooms for crash-related injuries and, tragically, another 2,364 teenagers in that same age group died as a result of motor vehicle accidents.

Sadly, in Pennsylvania, the trend is no different. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 142 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 20 died in motor vehicle collisions in Pennsylvania in 2017. This number represents 12.5% of all traffic-related fatalities in the state that year.

For many, these statistics are not only alarming but also surprising, given our state’s efforts to improve teen driver safety in recent years.

Pennsylvania’s Graduated Driver Licensing Law

In 2011, Pennsylvania’s Graduated Driver Licensing Law, initially enacted in 1999, received an extensive overhaul. The law requires teen applicants to complete a physical examination, including a vision screening, and written knowledge test prior to obtaining a learner’s permit. Once a teen driver obtains a learner’s permit, they must complete at least six months of learning, during which time they must complete driving practice accompanied by an experienced, licensed driver over the age of 20.

Additionally, before applying for a junior license, the teen must have a parent or guardian certify that, during those six months, the teen completed at least 65 hours of actual, supervised driving, with at least ten of those hours being at night and five being during “poor weather conditions.”

After completing all learner’s permit requirements, the teen may take a road test and receive a junior license. This is a step below an unrestricted (or standard) driver’s license. A junior license does not permit the license holder to drive between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. (with some exceptions for employment/volunteer work); it also limits who can be a passenger and how many passengers the license holder can have. Specifically, young drivers can only carry one passenger in the vehicle under the age of 18 who is not a family member for the first six months. After six months, young drivers cannot have more than three non-family passengers in the vehicle under the age of 18.

Unrestricted driver’s licenses are only issued when a teen driver has successfully completed each stage of the graduated driving system and when they have established a history of safe driving.

But with all these safety measures in place, why are teen driving accidents and fatalities still occurring at such an alarming rate?

Compliance Is Key

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), the Graduated Driver Licensing Law “has proven effective in reducing crashes and fatalities for 16- and 17-year-olds.” But what about other at-risk teen drivers?

Like any law, the effectiveness of young driver restrictions relies on compliance. Unfortunately, many teens fail to follow the law—and some parents turn a blind eye. It is not uncommon for teens to drive with a greater number of passengers than allowed on a junior license, but this is one of the most dangerous things a young driver can do. The CDC reports that “the presence of teen passengers increases the crash risk of unsupervised teens.” In short: the more teenage passengers there are in a vehicle driven by a teenage driver, the higher the risk. Having friends in the car greatly increases the risk of a teenage driver becoming distracted, which is one of the leading causes of all auto accidents, not only those involving teens.

The CDC also notes that teen driving accidents often involve other unlawful behavior, such as alcohol consumption/drunk driving, speeding, and failure to use safety restraints (seatbelts). Nighttime and weekend driving are also particularly dangerous for inexperienced teenage drivers. According to the CDC, 40% of all teen driver and teen passenger traffic deaths (in which “teens” were those aged 13 to 19) in 2017 occurred between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., while another 51% happened on Fridays and weekends.

Staying Safe

It is absolutely critical that teen drivers follow all state laws under Pennsylvania’s Graduated Driver Licensing Law. Additionally, parents and guardians should encourage teens to follow the law and ensure that their children remain in compliance with applicable restrictions. If you are the parent of a teenage driver, talk to them about traffic safety. Warn them of the dangers of texting while driving, drinking and driving, and becoming distracted while behind the wheel. The safety of your child and others on the road are of the utmost importance, and following our state’s young driver laws is one of the best ways to stay safe and protect others.

Resources for parents and teens about driving:

If you or someone you love was involved in a car accident, we can help. Contact Metzger Wickersham today to request a free and confidential consultation.

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