16-Year-Olds Not As Dangerous As We Thought

| Wed Sep. 14, 2011 10:58 AM EDT

I haven't written about this for a while, but longtime readers may remember a couple of past studies suggesting that there's not much benefit to state programs that make it hard for teenagers to get drivers licenses. Today, a new, much larger study pretty much confirms this:

A nationwide analysis of crash data suggests that the restrictions may have backfired: While the number of fatal crashes among 16- and 17-year-old drivers has fallen, deadly accidents among 18-to-19-year-olds have risen by an almost equal amount. In effect, experts say, the programs that dole out driving privileges in stages, however well-intentioned, have merely shifted the ranks of inexperienced drivers from younger to older teens.

....The researchers found that states with the most restrictive graduated licensing programs — such as those that required supervised driving time as well as having night-driving restrictions and passenger limitations — saw a 26% reduction in the rate of fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers compared with states without any restrictions. But the rate of fatal crashes among 18-year-old drivers in those states jumped 12% compared with the states without restrictions.

....A similar trend was seen when comparing drivers in states with strong graduated licensing programs with those in states with weak programs: The rate of fatal crashes among 16-year-old drivers was 16% lower but was 10% higher among 18-year-old drivers.

Overall, since the first program was enacted in 1996, graduated programs were linked to 1,348 fewer fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers and 1,086 more fatal crashes involving 18-year-old drivers.

The study can't tell us for sure why this is, but the most likely explanation is that it's not really age that's the factor in all these crashes. It's inexperience. When states tighten up requirements to get a drivers license, a lot of 16-year-olds decide not to bother getting one. They just wait until they're 18 and they can get a license under the standard rules. So when they take to the road they may be a couple of years older, but they're still brand new to driving. The result is lots of crashes.

What's the answer? Rolling back the new rules is vanishingly unlikely, especially since they don't appear to have made things actively worse. But in sort of a parody of conservative caricatures of liberal regulatory overkill — except this time it's coming from the private sector — an officer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests that if the new laws have unintentionally made 18-year-olds more dangerous, maybe we just need more law. Tighten up requirements on 18 and 19-year-olds and we'll be all set! Huzzah!