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Study: Tougher state laws could cut teen fatal crashes

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Michigan could reduce its teen driver fatal crashes by 42 percent if it adopted the strictest teen driver laws in the nation.

"The question lawmakers should be asking themselves is, have we done all that we can do to keep our youngest drivers safe on the road? In many cases, the answer is no," says Anne McCartt, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's senior vice president for research and an author of the study.

Since 1996 starting with Florida, states have been adopting graduated licensing to require more training of teen drivers and more restrictions — like limiting nighttime driving, driving with friends and talking on cellphones. In 1997, Michigan was the first state to require a minimum number of hours of supervised driving before obtaining an intermediate license.

IIHS notes that in Michigan a teen can get a learner's permit before they turn 15; they recommend 16. Michigan requires 50 hours of training, while some states require as much as 70 hours. Michigan allows teens to get a license at 16, while some states require teens to wait until 17. Michigan allows teens to drive until 10 p.m.; some states don't let teens drive past 8; Michigan teens can have one passenger in the car; some states bar teens from having any passengers.

In recent years, states have focused on cracking down on teen distracted driving rather than adding new comprehensive teen driving laws.

In 2011, Michigan toughened its rules on new drivers. It moved the state's restricted hours on teen drivers to 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., unless traveling for work. The previous curfew was midnight. Michigan now limits teen drivers to one non-family passenger age 20 or younger unless for some school activities. In 2013, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a new law banning novice teenage drivers from talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving in Michigan

"Enacting distracted driving laws for teens appears to be more palatable than enacting stricter GDL laws," McCartt says. "Only two states had a cellphone or texting ban for teenage drivers in 2004. Since then, 38 states and D.C. have implemented teen-specific bans. That's a remarkable pace."

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for those 5-34 years old in the United States. Young inexperienced drivers are far more likely than most drivers to make deadly mistakes. On a per mile basis, teen drivers are nearly three times as likely to be in a fatal crash than those aged 20 or older.

Young people ages 15-24 represent only 14 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for 30 percent, or $19 billion, of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among males and 28 percent, or $7 billion of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among females, the CDC said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says more than half of teens killed in crashes were not wearing seat belts. NHTSA said speeding was a factor in 35 percent of fatal crashes involving teen drivers, 25 percent involve drinking by a teen driver and 12 percent of teen drivers involved in fatal crashes were distracted at the time.