Honorable Deborah Hersman, NTSB Board MemberTestimony of
Deborah Hersman
Member
National Transportation Safety Board
before the
Committee on Transportation
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
on Junior Driver Licenses
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
January 23, 2006


Good afternoon Chairman Geist and Members of the Committee on Transportation. Thank you for providing me the opportunity to provide the National Transportation Safety Board's perspectives on Pennsylvania's Junior Driver License system. This hearing is an important first step toward taking action that will reduce needless deaths and injuries involving teen drivers on Pennsylvania's streets and highways.

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.

Today, I want to offer a national perspective regarding young novice drivers and highlight two areas in which Pennsylvania can improve its junior driver license system.

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.

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 are the leading cause of death among 15-20 year olds, accounting for 40 percent of all deaths 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 Pennsylvania are just as ominous. Teens make up about 6 percent of the driving population, but constituted 14 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2004. Almost 23 percent of the deaths on Pennsylvania roads in 2004 involved teen drivers.

While these numbers define a serious problem, it is individual tragedies such as you have heard described today that make us recognize the critical importance of addressing the issue.

From 1997 through 2004, across the nation, 54,246 people died in crashes involving teen drivers. In Pennsylvania , 2,815 people died in crashes involving teen drivers. During the same years, the nation saw 46,880 teen motor vehicle occupants die in motor vehicle crashes. Here in Pennsylvania, you saw a significant reduction in fatalities involving 15-20 year old drivers immediately following enactment of the 1999 law. It appears, however, that the numbers have been level in recent years. There were 348 people killed in crashes involving 15-20 year old drivers in Pennsylvania in 2004.

While the emotional costs are staggering, the financial costs are equally astounding. The lifetime cost to society for each highway fatality is over $977,000. 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 Pennsylvania , teen-involved fatalities cost society over $27.5 billion.

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 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 Pennsylvania 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).

The model graduated driver licensing program requires young novice drivers to proceed through three stages a learner's permit, an intermediate or provisional license, and a full license. (Here in Pennsylvania, the Junior Driver's License serves as that intermediate phase.) To obtain full licensure, the young driver must complete the first two stages without any moving violations or crashes attributed to the driver. It 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.

The use of a 3-stage system is important because it allows for the incremental introduction of the driving privilege. The provisional license can be suspended or revoked or the unrestricted license can be deferred if certain conditions that encourage safe driving have not been met and this is quite an incentive for most teenagers.

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

  • 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.
  • At least 50 hours of supervised driving practice with a licensed driver who is at least 21 years old.
  • A minimum period of 6 months without at-fault crashes or traffic violations (and accelerated penalties if the driver has an at-fault crash or traffic violation) before proceeding to the intermediate (provisional) license.
  • An intermediate phase that includes restrictions on nighttime driving, driving with excessive passengers, and cell phone use.
  • The nighttime driving restriction should prohibit the intermediate or provisional license holder from driving unsupervised at night.
  • The passenger restriction should allow no more than one other passenger in the vehicle, unless accompanied by a supervising adult at least 21 years old.
  • The cell phone use restriction should prohibit the use of any interactive wireless communication device by learner's or intermediate license holders while they are driving.
  • A minimum 6-month holding period for the intermediate or provisional license.
  • A minimum period of 6 months without at-fault crashes or traffic violations (and accelerated penalties if the driver has an at-fault crash or traffic violation) before proceeding to the full license.
  • Mandatory seat belt use and zero tolerance of alcohol use at each stage.

In 1999, Chairman Geist, you sponsored legislation to strengthen Pennsylvania's driver licensing system that became the current junior driver licensing law. Pennsylvania's junior driver licensing system now contains many important elements of a graduated licensing system. These include a 6-month holding period with a 50-hour supervised driving requirement for the learner's permit, and a 6-month intermediate phase with a nighttime driving restriction. But, the current system lacks at least two important elements, which are restrictions on passengers and cell phone use by junior drivers license holders.

Thus, we are pleased to see that bills already have been introduced that would strengthen the existing law by adding a passenger restriction, and by restricting the use of cell phones by learner's permit and junior license holders.

Passenger Restriction

In 2002, the Safety Board revisited the teen driving issue and added a passenger restriction to its original graduated licensing 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:

  • No more than one passenger under age 20 is allowed unless a supervising driver is present or until the driver receives full licensure.
  • Passenger exemptions are granted for family members to ride with an unsupervised provisional licensed driver.

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.

IIHS conducted follow-up surveys in 1999 of parents in Connecticut and Florida whose children had recently obtained their driver's licenses. These parents were even more supportive than they had been during initial interviews in 1996, before their teens 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. Connecticut has since added a passenger restriction.

The Board has recommended that States prohibit any passengers, and that it apply to any passenger under age 20. Each of the passenger restriction bills that have been introduced would allow no more than one passenger under 18 years of age.

Cell Phone Use Restriction

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. A 2001 study found that even experienced drivers engaged in wireless telephone conversations were unaware of traffic movements around them. Moreover, cell phone use is becoming increasingly prevalent, as the use of these devices has more than tripled, from 60 million subscribers in 1998 to more than 197 million today.

In January 2002, New Jersey became the first State to restrict cell phone use by young novice drivers. Its new law prohibited 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. Today there are 10 States, including your neighbors Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York, that restrict cell phone use by drivers with an instructional and/or intermediate license. The Safety Board recommends that you 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.

Conclusion

This hearing is a valuable opportunity to review the experience of Pennsylvania's junior driver licensing program that has now been in effect for about 5 years. The law has had a positive effect. But, both statewide statistics and the recent crashes we have heard described today demonstrate that there still is a serious problem that must be addressed. Beginning drivers should be provided the maximum time to practice, under the safest possible real-world conditions. Restrictions on passengers and cell phone use are two important improvements that can make a difference. Highway crashes involving young drivers will remain a serious and persistent problem unless concrete and comprehensive steps such as these are taken.

The Safety Board asks that this committee to approve a strong measure that will improve Pennsylvania 's existing junior driver license 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 graduated licensing's life saving benefit that we have included it on the Board's list of "Most Wanted" recommendations. A comprehensive GDL system is one of the most effective actions that the Pennsylvania 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.