Deaths and injuries are down in state, but officials want even stronger standards.
Tire skid marks were visible off Buck Hill Road where classmates and friends of Frederick J. Alexander, 16, of Burnsville, and Alesha K. Roehl, 17, of Northfield, were killed in an August 2012 car accident. Five teens were in the car when it sped off a Burnsville frontage road, rolled over and wound up on Interstate 35 in Burnsville.
A state law meant to prevent newly minted drivers from dying on the roads has done just that. Five years after Minnesota put restrictions on teenagers’ licenses, the number of fatalities in crashes involving teen drivers has been cut in half, state data show.
Injuries are down, too. The average rate of crashes that cause injury involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers fell by nearly a third in the full four calendar years after the law’s start compared with the four previous years, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. In 2012, about 2,500 people were injured in crashes involving teenage drivers — down from 3,853 in 2007.
The rules, which went into effect in August 2008, limit new drivers’ nighttime driving and teenage passengers.
Officials praise the drop in deaths but say the restrictions could be stricter and enforcement stronger.
“The provisions we’ve put in place are working,” said Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, one of the bill’s chief authors. “But when you look at the data, you find that there are still some gaps.”
The hard-won rules, passed after protracted debate, fall below recommendations by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which estimates that the state could further reduce fatal crashes by 44 percent by raising the permit age to 16 from 15 and not allowing teens to drive after 8 p.m., among other things.
Minnesota’s nighttime driving restriction begins at midnight and covers the first six months of driving. “That’s not that strong,” said Anne McCartt, the Insurance Institute’s senior vice president for research. More than 25 states start earlier in the evening. Many last longer.
In the five years since the law was put into place, a few high-profile crashes in which teen drivers were violating the law have raised questions about whether it can be enforced. Because an officer would typically ticket a 16-year-old breaking the law only after pulling him over for another offense, parents are meant to be the law’s main enforcers. But a new study by State Farm Insurance shows that parents overestimate how often their teenagers are obeying the rules.
Reaching the parents
The lights dimmed, and the video began. Screeching tires, an accident’s twisted remains and a voice: “I never thought that he’d die so young.”
It’s a dramatic scene familiar to driver’s education classes, but this new, eight-minute video has a different audience: parents.
They gathered at a church chapel in Chaska for a 90-minute session on their teens’ first year driving — the year they have the greatest risk of death, instructors warned.
“Folks, if you think that your teen driver, who’s a really good driver, if you don’t think their behavior changes when you are not in the car, wake up,” said Gordy Pehrson, a coordinator for the Office of Traffic Safety.
Officials have been testing this class in cities around the state and so far have reached 250 parents. It’s voluntary. But Norton is considering a bill that would require a parent to attend an hourlong class as part of their teen driver’s licensure process.
“We can’t assume that if we hand a parent a brochure or booklet, they’ll read it,” she said.
During last week’s class, held with DS Driving School West, Pehrson ran through the state restrictions on nighttime driving and the limits on passengers under age 20. A teen is allowed just one teenage rider for the first six months and three for the next six months. But he recommended that parents go further.