Campaign pushes to raise minimum driving age to 16

Campaign pushes to raise minimum driving age to 16

Higher driving age pushed

By Jennifer Brooks • THE TENNESSEAN • June 14, 2010

Every year, thousands of 15-year-olds head out on Tennessee roads with the ink barely dry on their learner's permits.

The question now is whether they — and everyone else on the road — might be safer if they had to wait longer before getting behind the wheel.

Robert Holt-Brady started driving at age 15. By the time he was 16, he had been in his first accident.

If he had to do it over again, says the Williamson County teen, who turns 17 next month, he would have waited a year to start driving.

"It was very nerve-wracking" to be a first-time driver, he said. If he had waited until age 16 to start driving, he "would have had a whole year of experience," giving him more confidence.

A national campaign is pushing for 16 as the national minimum driving age. A bill to set that minimum age is working its way through Congress this year.

A recent state study of the effectiveness of Tennessee's graduated driver's license law concluded that states with higher minimum driving ages have lower rates of teen driving-related accidents and deaths.

"This is a major public health problem," said Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of the nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety group, which is lobbying for a higher minimum driving age.

"Teens are dying on our roads. This happens every day, in every community in the country."

A deadly state for teens

Tennessee is one of the deadliest states for young drivers, and Nashville is one of the most dangerous metro regions.

The state ranked sixth in the nation for fatal crashes involving teen drivers in a national study by Allstate Insurance in 2008. The same study ranked the Nashville-Murfreesboro metro region fourth in the nation for fatal teen crashes.

In an effort to keep young drivers safer, Tennessee introduced a graduated driver's license law in 2000 to ease teen drivers into the responsibilities of driving and limit the number of unsupervised hours they can spend on the road.

Six months after their 15th birthday, teens can apply for a learner's permit. After a minimum of 50 hours of supervised driving practice, including mandatory night driving, they can move up at age 16 to an intermediate license that allows them to drive unsupervised, with no more than one passenger, between the hours of 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.

Teen crashes decline

At age 17, teens receive an unrestricted license.

In the decade since the graduated licensing law went into effect, it has had some success in reducing the number of accidents, according to a study released this month by the state comptroller's office.
There has been a significant drop in the number of traffic crashes involving young drivers. In 2005, there were 136 accidents for every 1,000 drivers ages 15 to 24 on the road. By 2009, the number had dropped to 111 crashes for every thousand young drivers.

"We've been aware for some time that automobile accidents were the leading cause of death for young people," said Phillip Doss, director of the state's Offices of Research and Educational Accountability, which studied the effect of the graduated driver licensing law.

"On paper, you'd have to say it looks pretty good," he said, noting that the number of fatal accidents involving teen drivers has generally been trending downward over the past decade, although the most recent statistics show fatalities still tragically high.

In 2000, the year graduated driver's licenses passed into law, there were 189 fatal crashes involving teen drivers in Tennessee. In 2008, the death toll was 184, according to the most recent data available from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

The report, submitted by the office of research to the legislature, does not make any recommendations, but it does make a few observations. States with higher minimum driving ages have fewer fatal crashes and injury crashes.

Sixteen-year-old drivers are involved in 38 percent fewer fatal crashes and 40 percent fewer injury crashes than 15-year-old drivers, according to a recent study by the AAA
Foundation for Traffic Safety.

'A lot of wailing' by kids

That doesn't mean that most Tennessee teens are happy about the idea of waiting to get behind the wheel.

The bill before Congress is sitting in subcommittee and is unlikely to move before the end of this legislative session, but word has gotten around.

"The kids have heard about it. There's been a lot of wailing about it," said Jeremy Lyon, owner of Brentwood Driver Training, who has spent the past 18 years teaching teens the rules of the road.
 

Raising the minimum driving age six months to 16 would cut into his business for the year it went into law, but Lyon thinks it's not a bad idea.

There's a difference, he said, between the way a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old drive.

"We can tell the difference in how they act in class," he said. "It's all about maturity. The older they are, the less goofy they are."

Contact Jennifer Brooks at 615-259-8892 or jabrooks@tennessean.com.

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