The positive news is that the number of teenagers killed in car crashes has dropped by nearly half in the past decade. However, too many kids are still dying. The statistics show that motor vehicle accidents continue to be the leading cause of death and serious injury among teenagers. The sad fact is that nationwide thousands of young people die in car crashes each year. In 2016, 2,433 teenagers ages 16–19 were killed and 292,742 were treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries suffered in vehicle crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Maryland, an average of 87 people lose their lives annually in accidents involving teen drivers, data from the Maryland State Highway Administration shows.
Inexperience behind the wheel is a leading cause of crashes. But the dilemma is, in order to gain experience, teenagers must drive. Not surprisingly, distracted driving is another major reason for teen crashes. A study by the Teen Safe Driver Program showed that distracted driving among teens, usually involving cell phones, accounted for three-quarters of moderate to severe rear-end accidents. Alcohol use as a contributor to fatality accidents involving teenagers has dropped over the years, but is still a big problem. Not wearing seat belts also contributes to deaths and injuries.
Can Stronger Laws and Better Enforcement of Existing Laws Help Save More Lives?
Presently, every state in the union has some version of graduated driver’s licensing programs for teen drivers. These programs require longer practice periods, more driver supervision, more participation from experienced drivers and restrict things like the numbers and ages of passengers in the car, times of day teens can drive and more. The stronger and more rigorously enforced graduated driving programs are showing results, according to the CDC, with up to a 41 percent reduction in fatal crashes among 16-year-old drivers, who are the most likely of any age group to be involved in a crash. However, many experts note that these laws are not always well enforced. Perhaps strengthening GDL laws in all states and ensuring they are better enforced would help save lives.
Additionally, there are proponents for raising the age when young people can begin to drive, as these proponents point out that the brain isn’t fully developed in the teen years. Some would even like to see the full driving age raised as high as 21. Today, in some states, teens can begin driving with learner’s permits as young as 14, and some states allow driving without restriction at 16.
The laws for teen drivers involving cell phone use and alcohol are more restrictive than for adults, but again, it requires rigorous enforcement to make these laws effective. And enforcement doesn’t always happen, for a variety of reasons. In Maryland, drivers under 18 can have their licenses suspended for up to 90 days for using a cell phone or other electronic device while driving, except if making an emergency 911 call. When it comes to alcohol, all states now have laws stating that a blood alcohol level of 0.02 or higher for drivers under 21 constitutes drunk driving and can result in the loss of driving privileges.
Seat Belt Laws
Almost half of teens who died nationwide in crashes in 2016 were not wearing seat belts. Seat belt laws vary by state and include primary and secondary laws. A primary seat belt law allows police to pull a car over and give a ticket if they see a driver or passenger without a seat belt. Secondary laws allow police to ticket for not wearing a seat belt only if they have pulled the driver over for another reason. Maryland’s seat belt laws are primary for front-seat occupants and secondary for back-seat passengers.
There are a lot of areas to consider when trying to bring down teen driving fatalities. Looking at different ways our laws can be strengthened and better enforced is a strong step toward further reducing crashes and fatalities.
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