Testimony of Carol J. Carmody
 Member, National Transportation Safety Board

before the Illinois General Assembly
Committee on Judiciary
on Teen Graduated Licensing Provisions

March 4, 2003

 



Good afternoon Chairman Cullerton and members of the Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you today about proposals to add a passenger restriction to the existing graduated driver licensing system. This is an important step which will reduce needless deaths and injuries on Illinois highways.

Congress created the National Transportation Safety Board as an independent Federal agency to investigate transportation crashes, determine their probable cause and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence. The recommendations that arise from our investigations and safety studies are our most important product. The Safety Board has neither regulatory authority nor grant funds. In our 35-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our recommendations.

The Safety Board has recognized for many years that traffic crashes are one of this nation's most serious transportation safety problems. More than 90 percent of all transportation related deaths each year result from highway crashes. A disproportionate number of these highway crashes involve teenage drivers between the ages of 15 to 20, young people who have only recently gotten their driver's license.

In a 1993 review of underage drinking and licensing for young drivers under the age of 21, the Safety Board recommended that states implement graduated driver licensing (GDL), the comprehensive provisional license system with a nighttime restriction for teen drivers. In 2002, the Safety Board revisited this issue and added a passenger restriction to its GDL recommendation.

Teen drivers continue to be involved in an alarming number of crashes. Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers today, accounting for 40 percent of all deaths among 15-20 year olds. Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the states and others have shown that 16-year-olds are more likely to be involved in single vehicle crashes, be responsible for the crash, be cited for speeding, and have more passengers than older drivers. Such crashes are most likely to occur from 10 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday nights.

In Illinois, teenager drivers are involved in a substantially higher proportion of traffic deaths than the national average of 14 percent. In 2001, 341 people died in highway crashes involving teen drivers. That means that while teen drivers account for no more than 7.3 percent of licensed drivers, they were involved in 24.1 percent of the total Illinois highway deaths. This is the highest number, and the highest proportion of deaths, in the State in the past 5 years. Even the lowest percentage of fatalities involving teen drivers, 21.9 percent in 2001, is higher than the national average.

Passengers in Vehicles Driven by Young Novice Drivers

Teen drivers generally have more passengers than older drivers, and these passengers are usually the drivers' peers. This results in a deadly combination of inexperience and immaturity. The presence of teenage passengers can influence the risk-taking behavior of teenage drivers, leading to crashes with increased injuries and deaths for both the drivers and their passengers. The relative risk of death among 16- and 17-year-old drivers who have at least one passenger in the car is significantly greater compared to driving alone. The risk increases with an increase in the number of passengers. Carrying at least three teen passengers results in a threefold increase in the probability of a teen in that vehicle suffering a fatal injury.

Indeed, two-thirds of teenage vehicle deaths occur in vehicles driven by teenagers. More teenagers die in vehicles driven by 16-year-olds than in vehicles driven by 17-, 18-, or 19-year-olds. The Safety Board found in its study that teen drivers were involved in 6,796 single-vehicle fatal crashes from 1997 through 2001. Sixty-seven percent of the passengers killed in crashes involving teen drivers were teenagers themselves between the ages of 15 and 19, and 17 percent were younger than 14 years of age.

The Safety Board has investigated several crashes involving young novice drivers that illustrate the tragic consequences of allowing inexperienced young drivers who have just recently obtained their licenses to drive with multiple teenage passengers in the vehicle.

About 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 31, 2002, a sport utility vehicle (SUV) driven by a recently licensed 15-year-old and carrying five teenage passengers between the ages of 15 and 18 crashed while traveling west at an estimated speed of between 70 and 76 mph on a highway near Columbus, Montana. The posted highway speed was 70 mph, and the vehicle was negotiating "S" curves and a 5-percent upgrade hill. Weather and road conditions at the time of the crash were clear and dry. According to passenger statements, the driver of the vehicle was engaged in conversations with the passengers and was turning around and talking to passengers in the rear seat when the vehicle went off the road; the driver then overcorrected in an effort to return to the roadway, causing the SUV to go into a broadside skid and to flip three times. The driver and passengers were ejected. The driver was killed. None of the vehicle's occupants had been wearing seatbelts. No alcohol or drugs were involved in this crash. The driver had received her license on April 20, 2002, providing her with just over 100 days of (potential) licensed driving experience at the time of the crash. The State Legislature of Montana is now considering comprehensive graduated licensing legislation that includes a passenger restriction.

In Illinois, the current graduated licensing program includes a 3-phase system with a learner's permit, an intermediate, license, and a full license. Young drivers must hold their learner's permit for a minimum of 3 months, complete driver education, and obtain at least 25 hours of supervised driving. (The Safety Board has recommended that the learner's permit be held for at least 6 months.) There is a nighttime driving restriction during the intermediate phase, which cannot be lifted before age 17.

The National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances (NCUTLO) added a passenger restriction into its Model Graduated Licensing Law in 2000, and incorporated it into the Uniform Vehicle Code. In a footnote, the UVC provides that "States can provide family-related exemptions from the prohibition against unsupervised transporting of teenage passengers, as deemed necessary."

The jurisdictions adopting passenger restrictions have generally followed the UVC model law, particularly in regard to the elements of the passenger restriction:

· No more than one passenger is allowed.
· The passenger restriction is in effect throughout the provisional license period.
· Passengers under age 20 may not ride with provisional license holders without a supervising adult driver present.
· Passenger exemptions are granted for family members to ride with an unsupervised provisional licensed driver.

Currently, 20 states and the District of Columbia have enacted passenger restrictions as part of their graduated driver licensing systems. Seventeen of those jurisdictions have a passenger restriction of one or zero passengers. With regard to passenger age, in 16 of the 21 jurisdictions with restrictions, the restriction includes all teenage passengers. An exemption for family or household members is permitted by all but 3 (California, Delaware, Indiana) of the 21 jurisdictions.

The length of time the passenger restriction is in effect varies from state to state. In 2 states (Maine and Nevada), the passenger restriction is 3 months; 18 of the remaining 19 jurisdictions extend the passenger restriction to 6 months (12 jurisdictions) or longer (6 jurisdictions). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recommends that beginning drivers be held in the provisional (intermediate) stage until at least 18 years of age to develop both experience and maturity.

Based on the available research, the UVC model law, and FARS data, the Board concluded that by restricting to zero or one the number of passengers carried by young novice drivers during the provisional (intermediate) license stage, states can reduce crashes involving young novice drivers and reduce fatalities among teenage occupants. The Board also concluded that if the passenger restriction and provisional (intermediate) license stage last only a few months, they are unlikely to have a substantial safety benefit. The Board, therefore, believes that Illinois should restrict young novice drivers with a graduated license from carrying more than one passenger under the age of 20 until they receive an unrestricted license or for at least 6 months (whichever is longer).

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted follow-up surveys in 1999 of parents in Connecticut and Florida whose children had recently obtained their driver's licenses. These parents were even more supportive of graduated licensing restrictions than they had been during initial interviews in 1996, before their teenagers had begun the licensing process. Few parents reported that the laws had inconvenienced them. Many were in favor of additional requirements, such as passenger restrictions, that were not currently part of their states' laws.

Nighttime Driving Restriction

Nighttime driving restrictions, such as proposed in S.B. 58, are especially effective in reducing crashes. A 1984 study of nighttime driving restrictions in four States found among 16-year-old drivers that crashes were reduced by 69 percent in Pennsylvania, 62 percent in New York, 40 percent in Maryland, and 25 percent in Louisiana. Because many of young driver crashes occur in the evening hours, the earlier in the night that the restriction starts, the greater the crash reduction that is achieved.

North Carolina implemented a comprehensive graduated licensing system with a 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. nighttime driving restriction in December, 1997. A recently published review of North Carolina's crash data found a 29 percent reduction in injuries and deaths involving 16-year old drivers. Nighttime crashes (during the restricted hours) decreased more than those during daytime hours. Both the number of crashes and the rate, based on population, declined dramatically.

Many parents and even young drivers support the restriction when they understand the justification for it. A 1994 survey by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that 74 percent of parents of 17-year-olds favor night driving restrictions for beginning drivers. Of those in favor, 48 percent preferred a restriction beginning at 10 p.m. A telephone survey of 16- to 18-year-olds in four States with such restrictions indicated that 63 percent of the teens in Illinois, 67 percent in New York, 80 percent in Pennsylvania and 47 percent in Indiana, were in favor of some kind of night driving restrictions for beginning teenage drivers.

More recently, the Insurance Institute conducted follow-up surveys in 1999 of parents in Connecticut and Florida whose children had recently obtained their driver's licenses. These parents were even more supportive than they had been during initial interviews in 1996, before their teenagers had begun the licensing process. Few parents reported that the laws had inconvenienced them. Many were in favor of additional requirements, such as passenger restrictions, that were not currently part of their States' laws.

Highway crashes involving young drivers will remain a serious and persistent problem unless concrete and comprehensive steps are taken. Our young people are this Nation's most valuable resource, and should be nurtured and protected. Too many of them are being killed and injured unnecessarily.

The Safety Board is so convinced of graduated licensing's life saving benefit that we have included it on our "Most Wanted" recommendations list. Adding a passenger restriction and improving the nighttime driving restriction, such as provided in S.B. 58, will significantly strengthen the graduated licensing system in Illinois. It will save both young lives and the lives of others involved in crashes with young drivers.

Thank you again for providing me the opportunity to testify about this important initiative. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.