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Passengers Raise Risks of Teenage Car Fatalities

Safety: Rate of deaths rises sharply with number of youths in vehicles driven by 16- and 17-year-olds, study finds. Data support California's tough approach to the issue.

March 22, 2000|JULIE MARQUIS | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

The risk of death in automobile accidents in cars driven by 16- and 17-year-olds rises precipitously with the number of passengers in the car, a new study has found.

The research suggests that recent initiatives by California and eight other states to temporarily restrict the number of passengers young drivers can carry are on the right track.

But the findings also indicate that the rest of the country is far behind and that even California and other pioneering states with expansive laws on teenage driving may not have gone far enough. The research--by a team at Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health--was published in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

In 1998, California became the first state in the nation to institute passenger limitations for its youngest drivers, barring 16- and 17-year-olds from carrying fellow teenagers in their vehicles for six months after they get their licenses. At the same time, the law prohibits young motorists from driving unsupervised between midnight and 5 a.m. during their first year behind the wheel.

The law, which also extends young drivers' supervised training under learner's permits, is considered one of the toughest "graduated licensing" laws in the United States. Although no definitive study has been done on the law's consequences, recent statistics released by the California Highway Patrol indicate that deaths among young motorists plummeted 17% between 1998 and 1999.

The Johns Hopkins study underscored the logic of California's approach. It found that the risk of deadly accidents among 16- and 17-year-old drivers climbs sharply with each additional passenger. A 16-year-old with three or more passengers, for example, faces nearly three times the risk of a fatal wreck compared with one driving alone, according to the study.

Studies have found that young drivers are more inclined to engage in dangerous practices--such as drinking or using drugs, speeding, swerving, skidding or running red lights--while in the presence of peers. They also are less sure behind the wheel and more easily distracted in general by the presence of other people in the car, experts say.

The Johns Hopkins study is the first comprehensive research to focus on passenger risks in cars driven by 16- and 17-year-olds.

California has led the nation in attempting to reduce the risk posed by teenage passengers. "California's [passenger law] is by far the best" in the country, said Robert Foss, a research scientist at the North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.

Yet even here, the ban on carrying teenagers lasts just six months and does not apply if someone 25 or older is in the car.

The Johns Hopkins researchers found that having passengers who are 20 to 29 actually increased the risk of a fatal crash for a 16- or 17-year-old driver. Nevertheless, several states have set the age of an acceptable adult supervisor at 21, even lower than California's 25.

Perhaps more important, the Johns Hopkins team found that death rates for teenage drivers spiked between 10 p.m. and midnight, as well as between midnight and 6 a.m.--a longer period than is covered by California's restrictions.

"[California] has one of the better systems . . . from a safety standpoint, but none of them goes as far as it ought to," said Allan Williamson, director of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which helped fund the study.

In fact, about half the states have no system of restricting young drivers' privileges after they are finished with their learner's permits. And just nine states place limits on the number of passengers a young motorist may carry.

An editorial by North Carolina's Foss in the same issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. urges states to adopt graduated licensing programs for youngsters that both limit teenage passengers and restrict driving after 10 p.m.

In states that don't do this, he writes, "parents of 16- and 17-year-old drivers would be well-advised to impose these restrictions themselves."

Death and disability among teenage drivers have long haunted parents and public health advocates. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers, accounting for more than a third of fatalities among 15- to 19-year-olds. The fatal crash rate among 16-year-olds is more than seven times that for drivers ages 30 to 59.

But policymakers in this country have only recently turned their attention to the role of passengers in teenage accidents--inspired by successful "graduated licensing" programs in New Zealand.

* INSURING TEENAGE DRIVERS

Teenage accident rates are down--good news for young drivers, their parents and the companies that insure them. G1

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