Although teenagers and many of their parents don't want to admit it, accident statistics make a strong case for additional restrictions on young drivers.
Motor vehicle accidents are the No. 1 killer of teenagers in the United States. In Kansas, drivers between 15 and 18 years old represent 6.7 percent of registered drivers but account for 20.1 percent of all crashes. During the five-year period that ended in 2004, 14- to 17-year-old drivers were involved in 60,013 wrecks that caused 26,050 injuries and 273 deaths.
It's enough to make some state lawmakers start asking questions, but they apparently don't like the answers they get. Legislation that would have raised the age for an instructional permit from 14 to 15, the age for a restricted license from 15 to 16 and a full license from 16 to 18 was introduced last session but ran into opposition, especially in rural areas, and died.
The argument that drivers who are 14 or older are needed to help on Kansas farms has long been a roadblock to tighter driving restrictions. With the drastic reduction in family farms, however, that need isn't as great as it once was. Even if people in rural areas are eager for youngsters to take over the driving duties for school, work or other activities, there are measures that could be taken to increase safety for teen drivers.
A representative of the Kansas Farm Bureau told the Journal-World recently that his group probably could support restrictions on nighttime driving and the number of passengers that could be in a new driver's vehicle. Both factors have been shown to have a significant effect on accidents. According to the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, 80 percent of nighttime crashes involving young drivers occurred between the hours of 9 p.m. and midnight.
Accident rates are higher among new drivers, regardless of age, but social, emotional and biological development are added risk factors for younger drivers. Research done at North Carolina also shows that young drivers, especially 16-year-olds, tend to engage in impulsive behavior, lack the ability to consistently recognize hazardous driving conditions and are more easily distracted than experienced drivers.
Young people getting a driver's license is an important rite of passage for them and a big convenience for their parents. Simply raising the driving age may not be the answer, but reasonable steps to try to increase safety for teen drivers while still allowing them to drive to school and work certainly are worth considering.
Kansas is one of only five states that doesn't restrict either nighttime driving for young drivers or the number of passengers that can be in the vehicle with them. It could be time to consider a change.