- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2000

Alexandra McCabe, 16 years old and driving with three girlfriends in her mother's car, was the vision of a carefree teen-ager. But that's a scenario that chills the hearts of insurance agents. A year later, the Oakton teen can explain why she ended up hanging upside down by her seat belt in a wrecked 1997 Explorer.

"We were listening to music and going about 40 miles per hour and not paying attention and didn't see the corner in time… . I had three other friends in the car, and it was at dusk," says Alexandra, who goes by the nickname Alex.

Alex's car became airborne after overshooting the curve. It went down a small embankment, flipped over and landed on its roof. "My seat belt saved my life because I was hanging upside down by my seat belt. I got a couple of burns from the air bag … all of us were fine, just minor injuries," she says.

Alex survived because she was wearing a seat belt. Many teen-agers don't, particularly when they travel in groups. Because of the added distractions, a 16-year-old with three or more teen-age passengers is three times more likely to have a fatal accident than an older driver or a teen without passengers, according to a recent study.

A teen-ager's first driver's license provides freedom and mobility, but it also requires skill, judgment and a strong sense of responsibility. Parents need to help teens safely navigate this rite of passage into independence. Some states are lending a hand with special licenses requiring extended driver training.

"I don't think I would understand how precious life can be without having the accident," Alex says. "I have totally changed my driving since then. I wasn't careful enough." She had to wait a year before getting another car. "My mom made me start over again," she says. "I am a much better driver as a result of the accident. I don't go faster than I should or push the limits."

"She broke about three of my rules," says Alex's mother, Laura McCabe. Those rules were: Carry only one passenger, avoid unfamiliar roads and don't add unplanned destinations.

What the statistics show

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds, and teen-age drivers are involved in four times as many fatal crashes as older drivers, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. While teen-agers represent 7 percent of the driving population, they account for more than 14 percent of all traffic fatalities.

A large part of this may be because of their failure to buckle up. More than 60 percent of 16- to 20-year-olds who died in crashes in 1997 were not wearing seat belts, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

In 1998, more than 6,400 young adults ages 15 to 20 were killed in traffic accidents, and more than 600,000 were injured, according to statistics from the National Safety Council.

A 16-year-old driver with three or more teen-age passengers is three times more likely to have a fatal accident than any other driver, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. The study analyzed data of fatal crashes from 1992 through 1997. It also found that teen-age crash rates go up after 10 p.m. and rise even higher after midnight. In fact, 41 percent of crashes involving teens occur between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., according to the NHTSA.

"I believe the best remedy for teen-age accident rates is graduated driver's licensing," says Li Hui Chen, author of the JAMA study. "There is evidence that graduated driver's licensing prevents deaths for teen-age drivers."

Graduated driver's licensing, which is available in Maryland and the District, but not Virginia, requires teens to pass three stages to earn a full license.

Some good news

Though the studies are bleak, the good news is that the number of youths ages 15 to 20 involved in fatal crashes decreased by 23 percent from 1988 to 1998, and the rate of fatalities decreased by 26 percent, according to the NHTSA. Experts say this decline is primarily the result of safer vehicles not safer teen drivers.

Teen fatalities involving alcohol also declined 33 percent from 1988 to 1998, according to NHTSA. Experts attribute this to public awareness, education and zero-tolerance laws for alcohol-related driving offenses for underage drivers. However, 36 percent of crashes that killed young people in 1998 involved alcohol, data from the National Safety Council reveal.

Case for graduated licenses

In an attempt to curb the number of young adults killed on highways, the federal government created guidelines to encourage states to implement graduated driver's licensing. To date, 24 states and the District have adopted the federally recommended graduated licenses, and 37 states have some type of law targeting teen drivers, according to the NHTSA.

At the first stage in three-stage licensing, a teen must pass a written test to get a learner's permit. The permit allows a teen to drive only when accompanied by a licensed driver older than 21.

In the second stage, the teen must pass a road test. After 40 hours of logged driving experience, the teen earns a provisional license allowing him or her to drive alone, without passengers under age 21 unless the passenger is a sibling. After a year's experience without driving violations, the teen can apply for a full license, which is the third stage.

A look at the law Maryland

"We have had graduated licensing in Maryland since 1976," says Richard M. Scher, spokesman for Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration. "Last July, we initiated changes to the existing program. It's now called the Rookie Driver Graduated Licensing Program."

From 1994 to 1998, more than 290 Maryland residents ages 16 to 24 were killed in auto accidents. Mr. Scher says the state recognized that most accidents involving teen drivers were a result of driver error, inexperience and a lack of judgment.

"What the changes reflect is our attempt at providing more experience and a situation of more confidence behind the wheel," he says.

Maryland's three-stage program allows a teen to get a learner's permit at age 15 years, 9 months. Restrictions on night driving and stiff penalties for driving infractions are imposed during the three stages.

"The response to the program has been terrific. We were pleasantly surprised with the amount of teens that saw the big picture and understood what the state was trying to do," Mr. Scher says.

The District of Columbia

The District's graduated license program goes into effect Sept. 1.

"We had a few situations where we thought teens needed more time," says Sheryl Hobbs Newman, director of the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. "If you start them out the right way, they will follow those same consistent driving habits."

The District has a three-stage process similar to that in Maryland, with restrictions on the number of passengers and night driving. "It very much ties into whether you are going to do what you are supposed to do in order to be moved up to the next level," Ms. Newman says.

She says the DMV has worked closely with the D.C. Council, where members felt very strongly about the program.


Virginia recently lowered the age necessary to secure a learner's permit from 15 years, 8 months, to 15 years. The rationale was to provide a full year of practice and experience before a teen gets a full driver's license at age 16. A teen with a Virginia permit is required to drive with someone over age 21, but there are no other restrictions.

"If [the teen is] under age 18, the parent or guardian has to give permission for you to get a license, and [parents] can take your license for any amount of time, or direct DMV to cancel for a six-month period," says Pam Goheen, deputy director of public relations for DMV.

"It's very important for parents to have a significant role in their child learning to drive so they know the expectations," Ms. Goheen says.

Virginia places such an emphasis on parental involvement that the permanent license actually is presented to the parent at a licensing ceremony for juvenile drivers.

Sixteen-year-old Steven Larsen of Woodbridge got his permanent license on May 13, his birthday. "I did get into one accident" after receiving his permanent license, he says, "and that was my fault. I was coming to a stop sign, and my drink fell forward. When I went to pick it up, I hit the back of my friend's car."

While Virginia has no restrictions on night driving or passengers, Steven says Prince William County has a midnight curfew for all teens 18 and under.

The gender gap

Statistics shows teen-age males are twice as likely to be killed in a crash as females, and speed is involved in many of these crashes.

Barry McCabe, a 20-year-old George Mason University student, got his license at age 16. "I had never been in an accident but had a few speeding tickets. I had my license suspended for a month one week after turning 18 for a reckless speeding ticket at 2:30 a.m.," the Oakton teen recalls.

Mr. McCabe had an accident last fall when four teen-agers going to homecoming pulled out in front of him.

"They pulled out in front of me when I was entering the intersection, and I hit them going 40 to 45 miles per hour," he recalls. "I broadsided them. Two of the girls were hurt pretty badly, and one was trapped in the car."

Mr. McCabe says his dad took him out to practice when he had a learner's permit and taught him how to handle various driving situations. He says that has helped him prevent accidents.

"Instead of restricting kids, teach them everything," he says. "Education is the best thing in the world."

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