Congress Seeks National Standards for Teen Drivers

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Following New Jersey’s move to force teenage drivers to display a special decal on their license plates, three Democratic U.S. senators are seeking a national graduated driver licensing law (GDL) to replace the varying state-to-state systems.

Currently, every state but North Dakota has a three-phase GDL program that allows teenagers to get their driver’s licenses in steps that are supposed to make them safer drivers. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that a good GDL program can improve highway safety. States that have imposed tough restrictions on licensing have had crash reductions ranging from 10% to 30%, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Massachusetts beefed up its rules three years ago and has seen the fatalities for drivers younger than 18 plummet 75% and injury crashes fall 38%. Those are truly impressive reductions.

Strong programs that limit nighttime driving and the number of passengers allowed in a car as well as set a minimum age of 16 for getting a learner’s permit serve as the model for the U.S. Senate’s legislation. Although 42 states allow teens to get learner’s permits before age 16, the legislation would tie federal highway funds to raising the minimum age to 16.

This is controversial. As opponents point out, there are rural states where children learn to drive as young as ages 12 and 13 in the course of living on a farm. Like many top-down federal standards, many state officials don’t like the idea of being told when they can issue driver’s licenses to their citizens.

IIHS estimates that raising the minimum age for a learner’s permit would reduce crash fatalities of 15- to 17-year-olds by roughly 13%.

In addition, the Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection bill (aka “Stand Up”) would establish a three-phase process that includes a learner’s permit and an intermediate stage before the driver receives an unrestricted license. It also would prohibit non-emergency cell phone use and unsupervised nighttime driving in the first two stages.

National Standards Sought for Teen Drivers (USA Today)