The newest drivers are far more likely to die in automobile accidents than drivers even a year or two older, prompting the insurance industry Tuesday to lobby anew for licenses that allow increased driving privileges as a driver gains experience.
A study of driving death rates found that the overall trend was in decline, from 15 driver deaths per 100,000 licensed drivers in 1975 to 12 deaths per 100,000 in 1996. But among 16-year-olds, the death rate nearly doubled, from 19 per 100,000 in 1975 to 35 per 100,000 in 1996.The statistics for 17- to 19-year-olds, meanwhile, declined from 27 deaths per 100,000 licensed drivers in 1975 to 25 deaths per 100,000 in 1996. That age group accounted for the most teen driving deaths until the mid-1980s.
"The most plausible hypothesis is that 16-year-olds are driving in more high-risk circumstances - at night, for example - than they used to, compared with 17- to 19-year-olds," said Allan Williams, senior vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The group, which is funded by the insurance industry, conducted the study by examining government fatal accident reports.
Williams said that while some may blame a cutback in high school driver's education programs, studies have shown driver's ed doesn't affect the accident experience of beginning drivers. He said an expected increase in the number of 16-year-olds makes finding a solution an urgent task.
The institute urged more states to adopt graduated licensing systems, which increase driving privileges as a driver's experience increases.
The insurance industry, which pays accident claims, favors a three-step system with a learner's phase - requiring a licensed driver in the car - of at least six months, a half-year intermediate phase where drivers cannot drive at night or with other teens in the car, and full privileges for drivers who complete the other phases without incident.
"We want to try to build up driving experience while keeping people out of the high-risk situations," Williams said.
The insurance institute said only six states have programs with all the critical elements, including bans on nighttime driving and carrying fellow teenagers. Those states are California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio.
States with other three-step programs include Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin.