Parents are programmed to worry about it. Insurance company actuaries build it into policy rates. Communities large and small mourn incomprehensible losses every year. Everyone knows that teen drivers are more likely to be involved in accidents, and statistics have long shown that motor vehicle accidents are the primary cause of death among young people. But how do the various dangers that escalate teen accident rates compare? Surprisingly, a recent study reveals that nighttime driving is the foremost risk factor faced by teenage drivers nationwide - eclipsing even drinking, speeding and failure to wear seat belts.
The full story is told in a decade of national data analyzed by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A&M University, one of the foremost transportation research organizations in the United States. Even absent the potent risk of drinking, teens driving at night face enhanced dangers because of inexperience, insufficient sleep, and their easy susceptibility to distractions. Overconfident texting and phone use while driving is increasingly common among the latest generation of new drivers. "Whenever you combine the nighttime danger and the cell phone danger with inexperience, you have created a perfect storm," explained Bernie Fette, a TTI research analyst and one author of the recent study.
In a recent Washington Post series on distracted driving, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood summed up the latest data on young motorists: "A quarter of all teens admit to texting behind the wheel and, in 2008, the highest proportion of distracted drivers in fatal crashes were under the age of 20. Teen drivers are some of the most vulnerable drivers on the road due to inexperience, and adding cell phones to the mix only compounds the dangers. We're doing everything possible to get the message out to teens that driving while talking or texting on a cell phone is not worth the risk."
Legal Solutions Vary From State to State
Some state laws allow teens to get learner's permits as early as age 14, but that practice and the days of unrestricted licenses by age 16 are disappearing. Legislation has been proposed in the U.S. Senate to encourage all states to phase in teen driving privileges by imposing strict bans on cell phones use, driving at night and having more than one teenage passenger. The intention would be to make sure that all states strictly regulate all drivers younger than 18. Any state that refused to comply would lose federal highway funds.
Ohio is a good example of a state that has already taken steps to reduce teen accidents by increasing restrictions on younger drivers. Since 2007, probationary license holders and temporary instruction permit holders who are less than 18 years of age face special restrictions on motor vehicle operation:
- Drivers under 17 can have only one passenger in the vehicle who is not a family member, unless the driver's parent or guardian is also in the vehicle.
- All drivers under 18 are also prohibited from driving between midnight and 6 a.m. without a parent or guardian in the vehicle.
- Any driver under 18 who commits a moving violation within six months of receiving a license faces a probationary period during which he or she can only drive with a parent in the vehicle.
But like two dozen other states, Ohio (aside from a few local ordinances) has not yet taken on the issue of cell phone use and texting.
Tough DUI Laws for Teens Remain in Effect
Enforcement of alcohol- and drug-related driving violations among teens remains a top priority among law enforcement agencies nationwide. The effect of these laws is readily apparent: according to the TTI, more than 80 percent of teens recognize drinking as a risk factor, but only three percent say the same about driving at night. And while the study period showed a steady increase in nighttime driving deaths among teens, there was no proportional rise in fatalities involving drunken driving.
The benefits of increased enforcement notwithstanding, overzealous prosecution and evidence errors will always be a concern of teen drivers and their parents. The best way to understand your rights and the ever-changing landscape of traffic laws is to consult with an experienced attorney who understands the latest statutory developments and court interpretations of existing law.