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Raising the Driving Age to 17 Years Old

Guest Mahlon G. "Lon" Anders

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Guest Mahlon G. "Lon" Anders

Support for raising the age when teens can get a driver’s license to 17 should not come as a surprise to Washington area motorists who have supported the notion for nearly a decade now, says AAA Mid-Atlantic.


The issue has been raised anew with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) release of two reports today highlighting the potential safety benefits of raising the driver’s license age in states.


According to the IIHS, “licensing at later ages would substantially reduce crashes involving teen drivers.”


“Previous polling data by AAA Mid-Atlantic shows that the issue has resonated for a decade in the Washington metro area,” said Mahlon G. (Lon) Anderson, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Director of Public and Government Affairs.


“For example, 68 percent of licensed drivers in the region favored raising the minimum age for a driver’s license to 17 years, according to our professional survey of D.C. area drivers released in 1999.”


“Is raising the driving age an idea whose time has come? In the wake of the spate of fatal crashes involving teen drivers in our area last October and November, the sentiment is probably stronger now,” Anderson asserted.


“At the time of our survey only 23 percent of licensed drivers in the area said they were opposed to the idea. Today, motor vehicle crashes still remain the number one cause of death for teens in the United States, and roughly 1,000 16-year-old drivers are involved in fatal crashes each year, and over 6,000 teens die annually on our highways.”


Getting a driver’s license when they turn sixteen has been a rite of passage for American teens since 1913 when New Jersey became the first state to require all drivers to be licensed.


Now some states are debating whether to push up the minimum age for getting a driver’s license to 17. Other states are eyeing 18 as the minimum age, the auto club noted.


Currently, 16 years and three months is the minimum age for getting a license to drive in Maryland and Virginia. It’s 16 years and six months in Washington, D.C.


“Raising the licensing age is a “logical next step to reduce driving by the riskiest motorists on the road, the youngest ones,” a spokesperson for the IIHS argues, although conceding increasing the driving age would be a tough sell.


One IIHS report looks at fatal crash involvement among 16-year-olds in Connecticut and New Jersey during the 1990s and shows a nearly five times higher rate in Connecticut than in New Jersey.


At the time, 16-year-olds were permitted to drive by themselves in Connecticut; solo driving was not (and still is not) permitted until age 17 in New Jersey, the study shows.


In the other report, the IIHS reviews previous research that shows lower fatality rates in other industrialized nations that have higher driving ages than we generally do in the United States. The state comparison in the U.S. was done before graduated driver licensing was implemented in either state.


The lower crash involvement in New Jersey is largely attributable to reduced exposure due to the fact that 16-year-olds are not allowed to drive by themselves in that state.


Seventeen-year-olds had a slightly higher fatal crash rate in New Jersey than they did in Connecticut, but New Jersey still had a significantly lower fatal crash involvement rate when 16- and 17-year-olds are looked at as one group.


What is more, in 2005 alone 7,500 drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 years were involved in fatal auto crashes throughout the United States, notes AAA, the nation’s largest traffic safety organization.


“Previous studies, including a landmark study by the IIHS, have shown that the fatal crash rate for 16-year-old drivers has declined sharply after states began enacting graduated licensing laws in the 1990’s,” added John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs.


“To be candid, one of the upshots of the passage of graduated driver licensing laws across the nation is the fact that fewer teenagers are getting their driver’s license at 16.”


Graduated Drivers Licensing (GDL) laws ease new drivers into licensure, allowing them to build experience behind the wheel before encountering more complex – and more risky – driving situations.


The law is working, says AAA Mid-Atlantic, which played an instrumental role in advocating passing such laws in Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland.


Of note, sixteen-year-old drivers are involved in 38 percent fewer fatal crashes and 40 percent fewer crashes resulting in injuries if their state has a graduated driver licensing (GDL) program with at least five of seven common components, according to a study released earlier this year by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.


Currently, 43 states and the District of Columbia have enacted three-stage GDL systems, and all states have some form of GDL.


A typical three-stage GDL program comprises a learner stage, during which all driving must be supervised; followed by an intermediate stage, during which unsupervised driving is permitted except under certain conditions (such as at night or with passengers); and finally full, unrestricted licensure.


When AAA started its GDL campaign in 1997, only eight states had graduated driver licensing laws. Today, 47 states and the District of Columbia have passed GDL laws, thanks in large part to AAA’s advocacy.


From the onset, AAA believed the GDL law could account for 500 fewer deaths among 16-and-17-year-old drivers, up to 1.5 million fewer crashes, and 500,000 fewer injuries.

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