Testimony of Ellen Engleman Conners
Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
before the
House Environmental Matters Committee
State of Maryland
Regarding Graduated Driver Licensing
February 9, 2005


Good afternoon Chairman McIntosh and members of the Committee on Environmental Matters. I want to thank you for allowing me to speak to you today about graduated driver licensing.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, 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. However, in our 37-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our recommendations.

Over the last year, Maryland has experienced a series of teen driving tragedies. For example, in November in Gaithersburg, 1 teen died when the Jeep he was driving hit a tree. Police cited speed as a factor in the crash involving the driver and 2 other teen occupants. Another crash in November in Calvert County, Maryland resulted in 2 serious injuries when the 16-year-old driver, carrying 3 other teen passengers, pulled in front of pick-up while attempting to make a left-hand turn. Amending your graduated driver licensing law is an important step that will reduce needless deaths and injuries on Maryland highways and help thousands of young drivers in Maryland to adjust to their new driving responsibilities.

The Safety Board has recognized for many years that traffic crashes are this nation’s most serious transportation safety problem. More than 90 percent of all transportation-related deaths each year result from highway crashes; a disproportionate number of these highway crashes involve teen drivers age 15 through 20, young people who have only recently obtained their licenses to drive.

Traffic crashes account for 40 percent of all deaths among 15-20 year olds, making traffic crashes the leading cause of death for this age group, more than suicides or drugs. Crash rates for young drivers are significantly higher than crash rates for other driving populations. In 2003, young drivers age 15-20 years made up about 6.3 percent of the driving population, but composed more than 13.5 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes. Further, more than 20 percent of all highway fatalities occur in crashes involving teen drivers. Crash statistics for Maryland are just as ominous. In 2003, teens made up less than 6 percent of the driving population, but constituted almost 12 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes; almost 20 percent of the deaths on Maryland roads occurred in crashes involving teen drivers.

The model Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) program requires young novice drivers to proceed through three –stages, a learner’s permit, an intermediate or provisional license, and a full license. To obtain full licensure, the young driver must complete the first two stages without any moving violations or crashes attributed to the driver.

Today, I want to discuss the problem of young novice drivers and the elements of the model GDL program. Then, I want to highlight the areas in which Maryland can improve its GDL system and cite the legislation before this committee today that will strengthen it.

The Problem

Young drivers have been the focus of U.S. licensing systems primarily because they constitute the largest group of beginners and have the highest crash risk. A number of studies by Federal agencies, the States, and private organizations 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 carry more passengers in their vehicles than older drivers. Such crashes are most likely to occur from 10 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. Although young drivers do only 20 percent of their driving at night, over half the fatalities of young drivers occur at night.

Young drivers generally transport more passengers than older drivers, and these passengers are usually from the same age group. Often this results in a deadly combination of inattention, inexperience, and immaturity. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that the risk of death increased significantly with each additional teen passenger transported by a teen driver. In single vehicle crashes involving teen drivers, two-thirds of fatally injured passengers were also teens (between ages 15 and 19).

Learning to drive is a long-term process; once the mechanics are learned, extensive additional training must be “on the job,” without unnecessary distractions, and with the assistance of a more mature and experienced driver. As their skills and maturity develop, new drivers can then proceed to full licensure.

The Solution

After reviewing crashes involving novice drivers under the age of 21, in 1993, the Safety Board recommended that Maryland and the other States take several specific actions, including implementation of a comprehensive provisional license system for young novice drivers, also known as graduated driver licensing (GDL). GDL consists of a learner’s permit, an intermediate or provisional license, and finally a full license. GDL establishes restrictions so that, until the driver has had an opportunity to gain experience, initial driving occurs in less dangerous circumstances. Restrictions are lifted after successful completion of the learning and intermediate stages.

Based on research by the Safety Board, NHTSA, and others, the Board recommends that the basic elements of a GLD program include:

For years, Maryland has had many components of a graduated driver licensing system, including a 3-stage system that included a nighttime driving restriction. The Safety Board commends Maryland for taking a leadership role on this issue. The Board also supports today’s legislation, which will strengthen Maryland’s existing law.

House Bill 242 will increase the length (from 4 months to 6 months) of the holding period for the learner’s permit, and element of the original model program. House Bills 362 and 395 both address the need for supervised driving practice, especially during nighttime hours, for holders of learner’s permits. Both bills would help ensure better young, novice drivers, although the Safety Board would recommend the provision that requires more practice hours (House Bill 395). House Bill 244 prohibits graduating from the provisional phase to full licensure until 18 months following the later of the date the person obtained the provisional license, the date of any moving violations or violations of the provisional license restrictions, or the date the provisional license is reinstated after it was suspended or revoked for any reason. As this provision addresses the Board’s recommendation of a minimum holding period of 6 months without at-fault crashes or traffic violations before proceeding to full licensure, the Board supports House Bill 244.

Passenger Restrictions

In 2002, the Safety Board revisited the teen driving issue and added a passenger restriction to its original GDL recommendation. The Safety Board investigated several crashes involving young novice drivers that illustrate the tragic consequences of allowing inexperienced young drivers to drive with multiple teen passengers in the vehicle.

The presence of teen passengers can adversely influence the risk-taking behavior of teen 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 than the relative risk when driving alone. The risk increases with each additional passenger. Carrying at least three teen passengers results in a threefold increase in the probability of a teen in that vehicle being killed.

The National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances added a passenger restriction to its Model Graduated Licensing Law in 2000, and incorporated it into the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC). Elements of the UVC model law include the following:

Based on the available research, the UVC model law, and FARS data, the Safety Board concluded that by restricting to zero or one the number of passengers carried by teen drivers during the intermediate stage, States can substantially reduce crashes involving young novice drivers and can reduce fatalities among teen occupants. The Board also concluded that if the passenger restriction lasts only a few months, it is unlikely to have a substantial safety benefit. House Bill 393 imposes a 6-month passenger restriction, which prohibits provisional license holders under age 18 from carrying any passengers under age 18, family excepted, but authorizes only secondary enforcement. The Board supports this provision that prohibits any passengers, but recommends that it apply to any passenger under age 20. In addition, the Board strongly recommends that all highway safety laws in Maryland allow for standard or primary enforcement.

Cell Phone Restrictions

In 2003, the Safety Board examined the role that driver distraction plays in motor vehicle crashes, especially when the driver is inexperienced. The Board concluded that current State laws are inadequate to protect young, novice drivers from distractions that can lead to crashes. The Board recommended that States enact legislation to prohibit holders of learner’s permits and intermediate licenses from using interactive wireless communication devices while driving. The recommendation is derived from the Board’s investigation of the February 1, 2002, Ford Explorer Sport collision with a Ford Windstar minivan and a Jeep Grand Cherokee on Interstate 95/495 near Largo, Maryland.

This crash involved multiple risk factors, some of which are associated with young drivers. The unbelted crash driver was 20 years old and had only an estimated 50 hours of driving experience, was operating a short-wheelbase sport utility vehicle, with which she was unfamiliar. She was driving 15-20 miles over the speed limit, while talking on a handheld wireless telephone.

Learning how to drive and becoming comfortable in traffic requires all the concentration a novice driver can muster. According to a 2001 study, even experienced drivers engaged in wireless telephone conversations were unaware of traffic movements around them. Moreover, the use of wireless communication devices is becoming increasingly prevalent as the use of these devices has more than doubled (from 60 million subscribers in 1998 to more than 144 million in 2003).

In January 2002, New Jersey passed a law prohibiting holders of special learner’s permits, driver’s examination permits, and provisional driver’s licenses from using any interactive wireless communication device while operating a motor vehicle. On May 23, 2003, the Governor of Maine signed a law restricting drivers under age 18, including persons with an instruction permit and holders of restricted licenses, from “operating a motor vehicle while using a mobile phone.” House Bill 394 would prohibit the use of any wireless communication device, hand-held or hands-free, by holders of learner’s permits or provisional licenses, under age 18, and the Safety Board supports this provision.

Conclusion

Beginning drivers should be introduced gradually to the driving experience. They should be provided the maximum time to practice, under the safest possible real-world conditions. They should be given the opportunity to gradually develop the skills needed for full licensure. For our young drivers to have the chance to develop, we need to create a support system that involves parents and guardians. We need to quickly identify young problem drivers before bad habits and behaviors become ingrained, and then take action to correct those problems. GDL has been described as “training wheels for young drivers.” This analogy makes good sense; we do not proceed from walking to riding a bicycle in one step. We need training wheels to make the process safer.

From 1997 through 2003, across the nation, 54,246 people died in crashes involving teen drivers. In Maryland, 799 people died. During the same years, the nation saw 41,134 teen motor vehicle occupants (570 in Maryland) die in motor vehicle crashes. While the emotional costs are staggering, the financial costs are equally astounding.

The lifetime cost to society for each fatality is over $977,000, and those not directly involved in crashes pay for nearly three-quarters of all crash costs, primarily through insurance premiums, taxes, and travel delay. Therefore, the 54,246 people who died in crashes involving teen drivers cost society almost $53 billion, almost $40 billion of which was paid by those not involved. The teen fatalities alone cost more than $40 billion. In Maryland, teen-involved fatalities cost society over $780 million, and teen motor vehicle occupant fatalities cost society almost $557 million.

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, one that must be nurtured and protected. Too many of them are being killed and injured unnecessarily.

The Safety Board asks that this committee enact legislation before you today to improve Maryland’s existing GDL system. The Board believes an effective combination of tough, fair laws, vigorous enforcement, and an intensive, targeted educational campaign is needed. The Board is so convinced of GDL’s life saving benefit that we have included GDL on the Board’s list of “Most Wanted” recommendations. A comprehensive GDL system is one of the most effective actions that the Maryland legislature can take to 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.