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.
“You can make stricter rules,” Pehrson told the two dozen parents. Don’t allow a single teenage passenger, he said. Set an earlier curfew. “If we went with what really works, what the data shows us, we’d start at about 9 o’clock at night.”
‘I wish they were longer’
Deena Lindquist’s 15-year-old son just started driver’s education classes. But she’s been through this twice before.
When her 17-year-old son Justin got his license, he was good about following the rules, she said. But one day, she saw him coming home from Chanhassen High School with three kids in his car. “He told me, ‘My sixth month was up today,’ ” Lindquist recalled.
Because family rules don’t carry the same weight as state law, she’d like to see the limits on nighttime driving and passengers strengthened. A stricter law would make it “a little easier on the parents,” she said.
About half of teens surveyed as part of the national State Farm study, released this month, say that they “almost always” follow the licensure laws. The smallest share — 43 percent — said they follow the laws limiting the number of passengers in their cars. That compares to 70 percent of parents who believe their teen follows that rule.
When asked to list “the most likely reason” why they don’t follow the rules, teens most often said that they did not believe the police would catch them.
Since 2009, state patrol and police have been more closely monitoring the neighborhoods around four high schools in Itasca and northern St. Louis counties. Officers had been disturbed by the “driving conduct we would see — the speeding, the cellphone use, the kids piled into cars,” said Lt. Jason Engeldinger of the Minnesota State Patrol.
But citations for driving too late or with too many passengers are “very infrequent,” he said. “The vast majority of the time, we’re stopping them for some other traffic violation.”
Parents are key to “gaining that voluntary compliance,” Engeldinger said. They’re also responsible for helping their children practice in a variety of road conditions. Fog, rain, snow.
“The first time their kid drives on a gravel road shouldn’t be on their own,” he said.
More study needed?
Lawmakers took action in 2008, after numbers showed Minnesota having the highest share of teenagers behind the wheel in deadly crashes. The state no longer holds that title.
In 2011, 10.7 percent of drivers in Minnesota’s fatal crashes were between the ages of 15 and 20, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about the national average.
At an October traffic safety conference, Dr. Leslie Seymour, with the Minnesota Department of Health, will answer a big question in bold type in her slides: Do graduated driver’s licenses work?
Her answer: Yes. “But possibly not in the manner it was intended to,” Seymour said.
The law has taken teens off the road, her research suggests, but it probably has not improved their driving skills. Since 2002, the number of crashes involving teenage drivers has fallen faster than for other age groups. But after taking into account the total miles traveled, the crash rate for teens actually increased — by 39 percent. Meanwhile, every other age group’s crash rate per miles traveled fell.
So while teens are crashing less, the miles they’re traveling are deadlier.
In a 2010 national study of these so-called graduated license laws, Pinar Karaca-Mandic, an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, came to a similar conclusion. “We find that [these] policies reduce the number of 15-17 year-old accidents by limiting the amount of teenage driving rather than by improving teenage driving,” her paper says.
Knowing how these laws work is essential to crafting better rules, Karaca-Mandic said by phone last week. “Now, it might make sense to focus on some of the provisions that are supposed to improve driving and try to strengthen them.”
Or maybe not. If it works to take teens off the road, maybe the laws ought to simply do more of that, Karaca-Mandic said, delaying driving until teens are more mature.
“From a public health standpoint, what are we concerned about? Reducing teen crash rates,” she said. “So whatever works best.”