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Remarks on Eliminating Distractions for Young Drivers, Most Wanted List Press Conference: State Issues, National Transportation Safety Board, NTSB, Washington, DC
Robert L. Sumwalt
Washington, DC

Ten years ago I was attending a conference about to make a speech to a large audience at a Florida resort. As I often do before speaking, I was in my hotel room reviewing my speech when the phone rang. It was my wife and she was trying to tell me something, but because she was very upset and crying I was having difficulty understanding her. As the conversation unfolded, I learned that the 16 year-old child of very good friends had been killed in an automobile accident.

Now, my daughter is 16 years-old and she is driving. I'm not kidding when I say that every time she walks out the door, I feel anxious.

I'm anxious because I know that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers. That's more than cancer, more than guns, and more than drugs.

Last year, 5,623 people died in a crash where a driver age 15 through 20 was at the wheel.

Teen drivers represent on average less than 7 percent of the driving population, but account for more than 13 percent of drivers involved in deadly crashes.

To improve the environment for teen drivers, the NTSB has recommended that states implement a comprehensive teen driver safety program. The NTSB's model program requires novice drivers to proceed through three stages -- a learner's permit, an intermediate or provisional license, and finally, a full license.

The idea is very simple -- we place protective restrictions on these young drivers to limit distractions as they gain needed experience.

An effective teen driver safety program includes restricting the hours during which a teen drives without an adult, a restriction on the number of passengers teens can have in their vehicle, and a wireless communications device restriction for beginning drivers.

Teen driver safety programs make a difference. A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that those states with a strong teen driver safety program experienced 40% lower rates of injury crash involvement by 16 year-olds.

The good news is that 49 states and the District of Columbia have strengthened their teen driver safety programs in the past decade.

Fifteen of these states, as shown on the slide in green, have met the NTSB's criteria for a comprehensive teen driver safety program.

However, there are still 34 states that lack some elements of a teen driver safety program, such as passenger restrictions for novice drivers or banning interactive wireless communication devices in both the learner's permit and intermediate licensing stages.

Today, there is only one state – North Dakota, shown in white on the chart – that does not have a teen driver safety program.

So, in summary, 35 states in the nation still lack vital elements to protect young drivers.

I'd like to show you a video that graphically demonstrates this problem. This is an actual "Drive Cam" video of a teenage driver whose parents installed the camera in the car. The left side of the video is a forward view through the windshield. The right side of the video shows the car interior and the actions of the driver and passenger.

We'll show it twice, but you'll notice that this teen driver almost runs into the back of another vehicle because of the distraction posed by texting.

Here's what we know: The measures we discussed today do work to reduce teen fatalities, and it's long past time to act. We challenge all states that are lagging in any of these areas – take the action needed to protect young drivers and those who share the road with them!

Before I proceed, let me take a moment to recognize and applaud a group that is doing just that: the National Organizations for Youth Safety (NOYS), some of whose members are attending today's presentation. These teenagers are with us from across the nation and are working very hard to get the safety message out to their peers.

Peer pressure does work, and it is an important part of changing culture. But, peer pressure is only part of the solution. As a parent, I know that parents turn to the laws for guidance. So, we need effective state laws that help parents and youth make the right driving decisions – decisions that will, in many cases, save lives.