Testimony of Richard F. Healing
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
Transportation and Telecommunications Committee
State of Nebraska
Regarding Graduated Driver Licensing
November 14, 2003
Good morning Chairman Baker and members of the Committee on Transportation and Telecommunications. I want to thank you for inviting me to speak to you today about Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL). Danielle Roeber, from our Safety Advocacy Division, is here to assist me.
Just this year, Nebraska experienced the type of teen driving tragedy that our recommendations are designed to prevent. In May, a car carrying 5 teens and traveling at least 90 miles per hour, veered off a road and smashed into some trees, killing 3 of the teens. Strengthening your graduated driver licensing law is an important step that will reduce these needless deaths and injuries on your highways and help thousands of young drivers in Nebraska adjust to their new driving responsibilities.
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. Having neither regulatory authority nor grant funds, the recommendations that arise from our investigations and safety studies are the Safety Board's most important product. In our 36-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our more than 12,000 recommendations.
The Safety Board has recognized for many years that traffic crashes are the 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 teen drivers age 15 through 20, young people who have only recently obtained their license to drive.
Traffic crashes account for 40 percent of all deaths among 15-20 year olds, making them the leading cause of death for this age group, more than suicides or drugs. National crash rates for young drivers are significantly higher than crash rates for other driving populations. Drivers age 15-20 years comprise about 6.6 percent of the driving population, but account for more than 14 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes. Further, 22 percent of all highway fatalities occur in crashes involving teen drivers.
Crash statistics for Nebraska are just as disturbing. In 2001, teens comprised a little more than 10 percent of the driving population, but accounted for more than 18 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes. And more than 31 percent of the deaths on Nebraska roads occurred in crashes involving teen drivers.
A comprehensive GDL program requires young, novice drivers to proceed through a three-stage program consisting of a learner's permit, an intermediate or provisional license, and a full license. To obtain full licensure, a driver must complete the first two stages without any moving violations or at fault crashes.
Today, I want to discuss three key points about GDL. First, I will explain the problem. Second, I will describe the elements of the model GDL program that Nebraska still needs to implement, especially a minimum holding period for the learner's permit and passenger and cell phone restrictions for the intermediate stage. And third, I will highlight a few success stories.
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, private organizations, and others have shown that 16-year-old drivers are more likely to be involved in single vehicle crashes, be responsible for the crash, be cited for speeding, and be carrying more passengers than older drivers carry. These 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, 50 percent of their fatalities occur at night.
Not only do young drivers generally drive with more passengers than older drivers, these passengers are usually from the same age group. This often 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. Two-thirds of teen vehicle deaths occur in vehicles driven by teens.
A frequent contributing factor to teen injuries and fatalities in crashes involving teens is the decision not to use seat belts. Nationally, from 1994 through 2002, over 41 percent of motor vehicle occupants involved in fatal crashes were unrestrained. As for the fatally injured motor vehicle occupants, 59 percent were unrestrained. As abysmal as these numbers are, seat belt use among the teen population is worse. For the same years, 51 percent of the teens age 15 through age 20 involved in fatal highway crashes while riding in motor vehicles were unrestrained. For fatally injured teens, over 64 percent were unrestrained. Nebraska's problem is even greater. Almost 61 percent of the teens involved in fatal crashes while riding in motor vehicles were unrestrained, and over 65 percent of the fatally injured teens were unrestrained.
Our current driver education system does not teach young people to drive; it teaches them to pass a test. Learning to drive is a long-term process, one that cannot be effectively managed through the traditional driver education program. Once the mechanics have been learned, extensive additional training must take place "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 more safely proceed to full licensure.
In 1993, after reviewing crashes involving novice drivers under the age of 21, the Safety Board recommended that Nebraska and the other States take several specific actions, including implementation of a comprehensive provisional license system for young, novice drivers, also known as GDL. GDL consists of a learner's permit, an intermediate or provisional license, and a full license. GDL includes restrictions so that initial driving occurs in less dangerous circumstances (daytime and with adult supervision at night) until the driver has had an opportunity to gain experience. Restrictions are then lifted after successful completion of the learning and intermediate stages.
Nebraska is to be commended for having a three-stage system with a nighttime driving restriction during the intermediate stage. But while you have made great progress in improving driver licensing requirements, you still need to implement several basic elements of a comprehensive GDL program. First, Nebraska should establish a minimum 6-month holding period for the learner's permit, during which a licensed driver who is at least 21 years old supervises the permit holder. Second, whether or not the teen driver takes a driver education course, the GDL program should mandate that learner's permit holders have at least 50 hours of supervised driving practice with a licensed driver. Third, Nebraska will also reduce teen crashes, injuries, and fatalities by limiting the number of teen passengers and the use of cell phones while driving for holders of the provisional operator's permit.
In 2002, the Safety Board revisited the teen driving issue and added a passenger restriction to its original GDL recommendation. The 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 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 risk when driving alone. The risk increases with each additional passenger, and carrying at least three teen passengers results in a threefold increase in the risk of a teen in that vehicle being killed.
Today, 16 States, and the District of Columbia, prohibit intermediate license holders from carrying more than 1 passenger under age 20 for the first 6 months or until they obtain full licensure. Using fatality and transportation data, researchers estimate that nationwide adoption of passenger restrictions for all 16-year-old drivers and one-third of 17-year-old drivers would result in 60 to 350 fewer deaths each year.
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. Elements of the UVC model law include:
Based on the available research, the UVC model law, and national fatality 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 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. The Board, therefore, believes that Nebraska should restrict young, novice drivers with an intermediate 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).
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 crash driver, who was 20 years old, unbelted, and had only an estimated 50 hours of driving experience, was operating a short-wheelbase sport utility vehicle, with which she was unfamiliar, 15-20 miles over the speed limit, while talking on a handheld wireless telephone. Learning how to drive and getting comfortable in traffic requires all the concentration a novice driver can muster. A 2001 study reported that 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, having 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." These State actions are eminently sensible, and the Safety Board recommends that Nebraska consider similar legislation to prohibit holders of learner's permits and intermediate licenses from using interactive wireless communication devices while driving.
Beginning drivers should be introduced gradually to the driving experience, and they should be provided the maximum time to practice, under the safest possible real-world conditions. For our young drivers to have the chance to develop, we need to create a support system that involves parents and guardians. Before bad habits and behaviors become ingrained, we need to identify quickly young "problem" drivers 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.
Graduated driver licensing does make a difference. Every evaluation of a State's GDL system has identified crash reductions, some as high as 60 percent.
One of the many individual States that have had great success with GDL is Iowa. In 2001, after Iowa enacted GDL, 16-year drivers were involved in 20 percent fewer traffic crashes than the same group in 1998, the last year before the system was adopted. In addition, 16-year-old drivers received 38 percent fewer traffic convictions that in 1998. Scott Falb, spokesman for Iowa's Department of Transportation, emphasized, "These are definitely some numbers Iowans can be happy about. We've reduced the number of violations and citations; we've reduced the number of crashes and that's our biggest goal."
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 (June 2003) of North Carolina's crash data found a 23 percent reduction in injuries and deaths involving 16-year-old drivers, and 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.
Reviews from other States have consistently shown significant crash reductions:
There has been a revolution in driver licensing laws in the past 10 years. Virtually every State has strengthened its driver licensing system. And there are now only 4 States that have not enacted at least some core provisions of graduated licensing. However, only 36 of the 50 States have adopted the comprehensive GDL system recommended by the Safety Board.
From 1997 through 2001, across the nation, 47,265 people (396 in Nebraska) died in crashes involving teen drivers. During the same years, the nation saw 29,155 teen motor vehicle occupants (249 in Nebraska) 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 47,265 people who died in crashes involving teen drivers cost society more than $46 billion, almost $35 billion of which was paid by those not involved. Just the teen fatalities cost $28 billion. In Nebraska, teen involved fatal crashes cost society over $385 million ($290 million covered by State and local governments and Nebraska taxpayers), and teen motor vehicle occupant fatalities cost society almost $245 million (about $182 million covered by those not directly involved in the crash).
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.
Mr. Chairman, the Safety Board asks that you enact legislation to improve your existing GDL system. We urge you to: 1) mandate a minimum holding period of at least 6 months for learner's permit holders, 2) require at least 50 hours of supervised driving practice in the learner's permit stage, 3) adopt a cell phone use restriction while driving, and 4) limit teen drivers to zero or one teen passenger. We are 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 Nebraska 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.