Testimony of Carol J. Carmody
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
before the
Committee on Transportation
Michigan Senate
on
H.B. 4600 - Graduated Driver Licensing Passenger Restrictions
February 17, 2004

 


Good afternoon Chairman Gilbert and members of the Committee. Thank you for providing me the opportunity to talk with you today about legislation to add a passenger restriction to Michigan's existing graduated driver licensing system. This is an important step that will reduce needless deaths and injuries on Michigan's highways.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress 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 37-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 for teen drivers. In 2002, the Safety Board revisited this issue and added a passenger restriction to its GDL recommendation. Earlier this year, following the investigation of a Maryland crash that killed 5 people, the Safety Board also recommended that a restriction on cell phone use while driving be added to the graduated licensing system.

In spite of the revolutionary changes in driver licensing practices that have been adopted in recent years, 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, have more passengers than older drivers, and be unbelted. Such fatal crashes are most likely to occur from 10 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday nights.

In Michigan, teenage drivers are involved in a substantially higher proportion of traffic deaths than the national average of 14 percent. In 2001, 326 people died in highway crashes involving teen drivers, which was 24.5 percent of the total Michigan highway deaths.

Teen drivers drive with more passengers than older drivers, and these passengers are usually the drivers' peers. These passengers create a deadly combination of distraction, 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 increases when there is a single passenger, and that risk grows with every 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 age 14-17 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 one passenger were ejected through the front of the vehicle, two other passengers were ejected from the side of the vehicle, and two remained inside. 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.

You have seen these tragedies here in Michigan, too. At about 11:00 p.m. on a July night this past summer, 8 teenagers were riding in a minivan on an unlit gravel road in Livingston County. Reportedly, the vehicle failed to slow for a curve in the road. The van left the road, flipped onto its side, and slid for as much as 50 yards, striking several trees. Three teenagers were killed, and the remaining were injured. The driver was a high school student, who had been driving for only 4 months. He held a Level 2 license that prohibited him from driving after midnight, but did not restrict the number of passengers in the vehicle.

Michigan was one of the first states to adopt a comprehensive graduated licensing system. The current 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 6 months, complete driver education, and obtain at least 50 hours of supervised driving. There is a midnight to 5:00 a.m. driving restriction during the intermediate phase. However, there is no limit on the number of passengers that a novice driver may carry.

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. 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, 21 states and the District of Columbia have enacted passenger restrictions as part of their graduated driver licensing systems. This includes the Great Lakes States of Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Eighteen of those jurisdictions have a passenger restriction of one or zero passengers. With regard to passenger age, in 17 of the 22 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 22 jurisdictions. Only South Carolina includes an exemption for traveling to and from school, in limited circumstances.

The length of time the passenger restriction is in effect varies from state to state. In 18 jurisdictions, the passenger restriction lasts for 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 Michigan 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 two states 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.

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 the life saving benefit of graduated licensing with a comprehensive passenger restriction that we have included it on our "Most Wanted" recommendations list. Adding a passenger restriction, such as provided in H.B. 4600, will significantly strengthen the graduated licensing system in Michigan. 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.