Testimony of Richard F. Healing
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
before the
Committee on Transportation and Telecommunications
Nebraska Unicameral Legislature
on
Legislative Bill 1111
February 10, 2004


Good morning Chairman Baker and members of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today about L.B. 1111, which would strengthen Nebraska's graduated driver licensing system by limiting the number of passengers that a driver with an provisional license may carry, and restricting cell phone use by those drivers.

Strengthening your graduated driver licensing law is an important step that will reduce needless deaths and injuries on Nebraska highways and help thousands of young drivers in Nebraska to 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. 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.

The Safety Board has recognized for many years that traffic crashes are this nation's most serious transportation safety problems. More than 90 percent of all transportation related deaths each year result from highway crashes. And 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. Crash rates for young drivers are significantly higher than crash rates for other driving populations.

Traffic crashes account for 40 percent of all deaths among 15 through 20 year olds, making this the leading cause of death for this age group, more than suicides or drugs. In 2001, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drivers under age 21 constituted only 6.8 percent of the driving population but were involved in 14.3 percent of fatal accidents and 18 percent of the total societal accident costs. Further, 22 percent of all highway fatalities occur in crashes involving teen drivers. Crash statistics for Nebraska are just as ominous.

Crash statistics for Nebraska are just as disturbing. In 2001, there were 77 deaths in highway crashes involving 15 to 20 year old drivers. That amounted to more than 31 percent of the 246 total highway deaths in Nebraska in that year. 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.

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).

A comprehensive GDL program requires young, novice drivers to proceed through a three-stage program consisting of a learner's permit held for an extended period, such as 6 months, 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.

Iowa is one of the many States that have had great success with a graduated licensing system. 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."

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-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.

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 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.

Nebraska has enacted some, but not all, elements of a model graduated driver licensing program. Young novice drivers must complete driver's education, or 50 hours of supervised driving before qualifying for a provisional license. The intermediate license phase includes a night time driving restriction. The bill before you would add two important additional features that will further reduce the risk that these young, inexperienced drivers will be involved in crashes.

Passenger Restriction

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.

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.

Nebraska also has experienced the type of teen driving tragedy that our recommendations are designed to prevent. In May, 2003, a 1999 Toyota Camry occupied by 5 teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 17 years old, was traveling northbound on 72nd Street in Douglas County, just northwest of Omaha. The vehicle, which reportedly was traveling at least 90 miles per hour, veered off the road and smashed into a number of trees. Three of the passengers, ages 14, 15, and 17, were killed. The 16 year old driver and another passenger, age 13, suffered serious injuries. None of the five occupants were restrained, and all were ejected from the vehicle. The driver had held his provisional permit for less than 30 days at the time of the accident.

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 generally have followed the UVC model law:

Currently, 25 states and the District of Columbia have enacted passenger restrictions as part of their graduated driver licensing systems. Twenty-two of those jurisdictions have a passenger restriction of one or zero passengers. With regard to passenger age, in 22 of the 26 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 26 jurisdictions. Only South Carolina includes an exemption for traveling to and from school, in limited circumstances. 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 length of time the passenger restriction is in effect varies from state to state. However, only in two states (Indiana and Maine) does the passenger restriction last for less than 6 months. 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.

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.

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).

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 L.B. 1111, will significantly strengthen the graduated licensing system in Nebraska. It will save both young lives and the lives of others involved in crashes with young drivers.

Cell Phone Use Restriction

Last year, the Safety Board completed its investigation of a crash in Largo, Maryland that highlighted the need for State laws to protect young, novice drivers from distractions, such as cell phone use, that can lead to crashes.

On February 1, 2002, at about 8:00 p.m., a Ford Explorer Sport was traveling northbound on the outer loop of the Capitol Beltway (Interstate 95/495) near Largo, Maryland at an estimated speed of 70 to 75 mph, when it veered off the left side of the roadway, crossed over the median, climbed up a guardrail, flipped over and landed on top of a southbound Ford Windstar minivan. Subsequently, a 1998 four-door Jeep Grand Cherokee ran into the rear of the minivan. Of the eight people involved in the accident, five adults were killed, one adult sustained minor injuries, and two children were uninjured.

This accident involved multiple risk factors, some of which are associated with young drivers. The accident driver, who was 20 years old, inexperienced, and unbelted, was operating a high-profile, short-wheelbase, sport utility vehicle, with which she was unfamiliar, 15 to 20 miles over the speed limit, while talking on a handheld wireless telephone.

Although the accident driver was 20 years old, and had been licensed for 3 years, she had limited driving experience. She did not own an automobile until purchasing the Explorer on the day of the accident. Her mother, with whom she resided, also did not own an automobile. The driver had occasionally borrowed a vehicle, and her driving experience apparently did not extend beyond that. She was, in effect, a novice driver.

The accident driver was also unfamiliar with the Explorer. The night of the accident was the first time she had driven this vehicle, and during the approximately 2 hours before the collision, she drove the car less than 50 miles.

In the Largo accident, the driver traveled at a high rate of speed, oversteered, and failed to maintain directional control. A landmark study of accident causation found that "unfamiliarity with the vehicle was associated with accidents where maintaining adequate directional control could have prevented the crash" and unfamiliarity was "also associated with excessive speed and improper evasive action."

At the time of the collision, the accident driver was engaged in a handheld wireless telephone conversation. Her friend stated that "she suddenly yelled twice, and the call disconnected." Wireless telephone records confirm that the accident driver placed a call moments before the accident. She was following her friend and lost sight of him. The cognitive effect of this conversation may have been greater than that of a casual conversation. Additionally, she was probably scanning the traffic ahead, looking for her friend, and her attention to the task of driving was probably diverted.

Research has shown that the cognitive effects of conducting a conversation on a wireless telephone can decrease situational awareness and that wireless telephone use can increase reaction time. In a 2001 study, University of Iowa researchers reported that drivers engaged in wireless telephone conversations were unaware of traffic movements around them. Safety Board accident investigations in several transportation modes have documented the relationship between poor situational awareness and poor performance. These investigations found that when airline pilots, railroad engineers, and ship crews lose situational awareness, they sometimes make operational errors that lead to accidents.

In the case of the Largo accident driver, the potential decrease in situational awareness is likely to have delayed her awareness of the effects of the wind on her vehicle. This delayed recognition of and reaction to the effects of wind probably precipitated her steering overreaction. Therefore, the Safety Board concluded that the accident driver's distraction due to the wireless telephone conversation with her friend contributed to her loss of control of the vehicle. Due to her unfamiliarity with the vehicle, operating inexperience, and distraction, the accident driver exercised poor judgment in maintaining a speed too fast for the existing, windy conditions and was unable to maintain directional control of her vehicle.

The Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this collision was the Explorer driver's failure to maintain directional control of her high-profile, short-wheelbase vehicle in the windy conditions due to a combination of inexperience, unfamiliarity with the vehicle, speed, and distraction caused by use of a handheld wireless telephone.

This accident involved multiple risk factors, and the Safety Board could not determine the exact extent of the role of distraction due to wireless telephone use. However, use of a wireless telephone while driving is inherently dangerous, as is any distraction that diverts one's attention from the driving task. Young, inexperienced drivers are particularly vulnerable to accidents, are easily distracted, and are known to engage in risk-taking behavior.

The Safety Board investigated another accident in 2002, in Korona, Florida, in which a 16 year old driver was following another vehicle, lost control, and ran off the road. Both the Largo and Korona accident drivers were unbelted and engaged in wireless telephone conversations when they lost control of their vehicles.

While the Board recognizes that having access to communication in one's vehicle can be valuable, drivers in this age group, in particular, should attend only to the task of driving.

There has been a revolution in driver licensing laws in recent years. Virtually every State, including Nebraska, has strengthened its driver licensing system. The most recent development has been the addition of cell phone use restrictions by young drivers in the graduated licensing system. New Jersey recently passed a law prohibiting holders of driver's examination permits from using any interactive wireless 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 a restricted license, from "operating a motor vehicle while using a mobile phone." Similar bills are pending in a number of other States.

As a result of its Largo, Maryland accident investigation, the Safety Board concluded that current State laws are inadequate to protect young, novice drivers from distractions that can lead to accidents. Therefore, the Safety Board recommended that Nebraska and the other States enact legislation to prohibit holders of learner's permits and intermediate licenses from using interactive wireless communication devices while driving.

The Safety Board recommends that you strengthen Nebraska's existing GDL system by addressing this important, and unnecessary source of distraction for young, novice drivers. The Largo accident illustrates the tragic consequences of this deadly combination.

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. Thus, I urge you to approve a strong measure 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.