Perhaps no rite of passage is as anticipated by teenagers — or more feared by parents — as getting a driver’s license. And for good reason. Driving can mean freedom and one more step toward adulthood for teens, but it causes no end of anxiety among parents.

Auto accidents are the leading cause of death for Minnesota’s teenagers, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
A startling 50 drivers age 16 or 17 were killed on Minnesota’s roads over the most recent three-year period, and 179 were seriously injured. Another 83 adults lost their lives and 346 were seriously injured in crashes involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers over the same period.

Nationally, teens accounted for 12 percent of car crash deaths even though they make up just 10 percent of the population, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which is funded by the auto insurance industry. And it’s not just teen drivers, but those with them who are at risk. Sixty-two percent of teen passenger deaths occurred in vehicles driven by another teenager.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the IIHS is now suggesting raising the legal driving age to 17, or even 18.

The problem with that thinking is that teens have to learn how to drive sometime. With proper safeguards, more parental involvement, stringent enforcement of new laws banning distractions such as cell phones, texting and e-mailing, the legal driving age should remain 16 in Minnesota.

Still, concerned parents and lawmakers can do even more to make teen driving safer. Keeping the legal age at 16, while teens are still home rather than at college, allows for more parental monitoring and mentoring about not only safe driving, but also safe passenger behavior and dealing with peer pressure. And those parents who may feel that their teens aren’t quite ready to get a license at 16 can impose their own age limit, as well as their own rules on when, where and with whom their kids can drive and ride.

Minnesota lawmakers have made important strides with new laws that took effect in August. Nighttime limitations are now in place that prohibit teens from being behind the wheel between midnight and 5 a.m. during their first six months driving, unless accompanied by a driver over 25 (some exceptions are allowed for work or for school events). And the Legislature wisely added laws imposing passenger limits. The first six months after receiving a license, a teen can have only one teen passenger, and for the next six months the limit is three. (Family members are excluded.)

These new rules are on top of the cell phone ban for drivers under 18, and a complete texting, e-mail and Web access ban for all drivers.

This is the right time for the Legislature to take the next logical step: Passing a primary seatbelt law, as 26 other states have done. A primary law would give authorities expanded authority. Under the existing secondary law, authorities can’t stop drivers only because they are not wearing a seatbelt. Given that almost half of the teens killed in cars accidents were not wearing seatbelts, it’s well past time for a new law that will help keep Minnesotans of all ages — especially teens — safer on the roads.