Tough rules imposed three years ago on new teenage drivers in California have sharply reduced the number of accidents, injuries and fatalities among the young motorists and their passengers, according to a study released Friday by the Automobile Club of Southern California.
During the first two years the restrictions were imposed, the number of teenage passengers killed or injured in crashes involving 16-year-old motorists dropped 40%, the study found.
The Auto Club review shows that the 1998 Graduated Drivers License Law has improved safety even more dramatically in Los Angeles County, where the number of teen passengers killed or injured in accidents involving 16-year-old drivers declined 47% between 1998 and 2000. (The law focused, in particular, on preventing novice teen motorists from driving with each other without adult supervision.)
"These findings show quite conclusively that [the law] had its intended effect on reducing teen crashes," said Steve Bloch, the Auto Club's senior researcher.
In Ventura County, some results were more dramatic than others. In 2000, 33 passengers between the ages of 13 and 19 were killed or injured while being driven by a 16-year-old. In 1998, before the law went into effect, that number was 46, the study said.
There were 105 fatal and injury crashes caused by 16-year-olds in 1998 and 106 in 2000, according to the study.
Property damage crashes involving 16-year-old drivers plummeted most. In 1998, there were 167 such accidents in Ventura County, but in 2000 there were just 113.
"When you add together the fatal and injury crashes and property damage crashes you get a 19.5% reduction for Ventura County compared to a 19.8% reduction with the state," Bloch said.
Auto Club officials say the law's effectiveness is clear because they can compare the statistics to a group of drivers who have not been subjected to new restrictions--19-year-olds. Those drivers were involved in accidents that produced 20% more deaths and injuries from 1998 to 2000, the Auto Club said.
In Ventura County, 19-year-olds caused 179 fatal and nonfatal crashes in 2000 compared with 130 in 1998. There were also 250 property damage accidents in 2000 compared with 195 in 1998.
"The trend is that 19-year-olds are up and the fact that 16-year-olds have not gone up is good news," Bloch said. "It suggests that the law is having an effect and that 16-year-olds are not acting like their brothers."
Bloch said that most crashes involving 16-year-olds occur with other teenagers in the car who distract the driver.
"I think the law has substantial impact on saving the lives of passengers and suggests that kids are driving better than they would have without the law," he said.
Under the law, new drivers under the age of 18 must hold their learner's permit for at least six months before getting a provisional license. During that time, they must spend at least 50 hours behind the wheel practicing with a parent or guardian.
Also, for the first year, teens with provisional licenses cannot drive between midnight and 5 a.m. unless a licensed driver 25 years or older is a passenger.
Once they earn a provisional license, teens are prohibited from carrying passengers under the age of 20 for the first six months unless a licensed driver 25 years or older is on board. The law, which was supported by the Auto Club, was prompted by high death and injury rates among teen drivers.
Drivers between 15 and 20 years old make up only 6.7% of the nation's driving population. But drivers that age are involved in 14% of traffic fatalities.
Bloch and several driving instructors said the restrictions have saved lives by allowing inexperienced teenagers to gain driving privileges in phases.
"We are pleased to see the death and injury rates drop," said Jerry Gaines, a former driving instructor at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, who helped draft the law after one of his students died in a car accident.
Pat Follis, the operations manager for the Teen Driving Academy in Orange County, said the law takes the right approach with young drivers.
"We know from experience that the more practice they have before they get their license and the more restrictions, those things all make a positive difference in the teen death rate," Follis said. "What they are doing is pretty much discouraging teens from cruising for the first six months. That's been a real positive thing."
He said the law is effective because it limits risky late-night driving and restricts teens from giving each other rides--often a major distraction, Bloch said.
In 1998, before the law took effect, 2,242 teenage passengers were killed or injured in accidents involving 16-year-old drivers. That number dropped to 1,348 in 2000, according to the Auto Club.
In Los Angeles County, such accidents resulted in 404 deaths and injuries in 1998, 214 last year, the Auto Club study said.