Testimony of Richard F. Healing
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
before the
House Environmental Matters Committee
State of Maryland
Regarding House Bill 462
February 17, 2004


Good afternoon Chairman McIntosh and members of the Committee on Environmental Matters. It is a pleasure to be here in Annapolis, Maryland. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today about the National Transportation Safety Board's accident investigations regarding young drivers and the need for passenger restrictions.

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

Motor vehicle 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. Young drivers age 15 through 20 make up about 6.6 percent of the driving population, but compose 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 Maryland are just as ominous. In 2001, teens made up less than 6 percent of the driving population, but constituted more than 13 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes; almost 17 percent of the deaths on Maryland's 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.

Maryland has enacted several elements of the model GDL program. Young novice drivers must proceed through a three-stage program consisting of a learner's permit with a 4-month holding period and a 40-hour supervised driving requirement, and an intermediate license phase with a night time driving restriction. The legislation before you would add another important feature that will further reduce the risk that these young, inexperienced drivers will be involved in crashes.

Today, I want to discuss two key points about GDL. First, I will explain the problem of young novice drivers. Second, I will talk about passenger restrictions, an element of the model GDL program that Maryland still needs to implement.

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, 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 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. Two-thirds of teen vehicle deaths occur in vehicles driven by teens.

A frequent contributing factor to crashes, injuries, and fatalities involving teens is the decision by the young novice driver and his or her peers not to use seat belts. Nationally, from 1994 through 2002, over 41 percent of motor vehicle occupants involved in fatal crashes were unrestrained, and 59 percent of fatally injured motor vehicle occupants were unrestrained. As abysmal as these numbers are, seat belt use among the teen population is worse. For the same years, 51 percent of teens age 15 through age 20 who were involved in fatal crashes while riding in motor vehicles were unrestrained. Over 64 percent of 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 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.

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. The Board, therefore, believes that Maryland 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).

House Bill (HB) 462 establishes a restriction for holders of provisional driver's licenses under age 18. Under HB 462, for the first 6 months after the provisional license is granted, these drivers are prohibited from carrying other passengers under age 18, unless those passengers are immediate family members or other relatives residing at the same address. HB 462 authorizes secondary enforcement of the passenger restriction. The Safety Board would prefer that the restriction apply to passengers under age 20 and that police officers can exercise primary enforcement. However, the Board absolutely supports HB 462 as a good first step to reducing the injuries, fatalities, and crashes that occur when teens ride with teens.

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.

The Safety Board believes an effective combination of tough, fair laws, vigorous enforcement, and an intensive, targeted educational campaign is needed. We are so convinced of GDL's life saving benefit that we have included GDL on the Board's list of "Most Wanted" recommendations. Madam Chairman, the Board asks that you enact legislation to improve your existing GDL system. We urge you to vote favorably for HB 462 and add a passenger restriction. Strengthening Maryland's 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.