The report, conducted by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, evaluated teen driving laws in 45 states. The full report is expected to be published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research this September.
According to the report, teenagers living in states with the most restrictive driving laws were less likely to drink and drive or ride in a vehicle with a driver who had been drinking than teens in states with less strict driving laws. According to Patricia A. Cavazos-Rehg, one of the report’s authors, teens in states with the most restrictive driving laws were sometimes half as likely to drink or drive or ride with drivers who had been drinking than teens in states where driving laws were less restrictive.
“The biggest difference we’re observing when we compare states that have the most strict policies with states that have the least strict policies,” Dr. Cavazos-Rehg told Youth Today, “[is that] based on our analysis, states that have the most strict policies, they are experiencing the highest benefits.”
The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics indicate that while younger drivers represent only 14 percent of the nation’s population, they account for almost 30 percent of all motor vehicle injuries among males and about 28 percent of all motor vehicle injuries among females. In 2009, the CDC reported 3,000 motor vehicle deaths, and more than 350,000 motor vehicle injuries, among teens aged 15-19 in the United States.
The report collects information from more than 220,000 16-and-17-year-olds, surveyed over a 10-year period from 1999 to 2009. Researchers than compared the surveys with their respective state’s driving restrictions, concluding that states with the strictest teen driving laws were the most effective in reducing both the number of fatal and non-fatal motor vehicle accidents involving teenagers.
A majority of states have implemented graduating licensing procedures for teenage drivers, which usually consist of a three-tiered progression from learner’s permits, typically allotted to teens around the ages of 15 or 16, to standard driver’s licenses when they turn 18. Provisional licensing laws generally place numerous restrictions on drivers, including limiting the number of passengers they may have in their vehicle as well as the hours in which they are allowed to drive.
“It could be that teens are getting home earlier, when their parties are starting or drinking alcohol will most likely occur,” Dr. Cavazos-Rehg said. “It could also be that the laws are teaching kids about social expectations and safe driving behavior. Another component is that teen drivers are supervised by an adult, someone 21 years old or older.”
She believes that teenagers may pick up vital driving behaviors during provisional periods in which state laws mandate that teen drivers must be accompanied by adult passengers, most specifically, their parents.
“During those supervised driving experiences, it could be that teens are learning about safe driving behaviors,“ she said. “There’s that emphasis on safe driving behaviors and social expectations at a time when teenagers are very impressionable.”
Researchers also suggest that the stiffer penalties dispensed to provisionally licensed drivers may serve as a deterrent to drinking and driving for teenagers.
“One other component, potentially, is the threat of losing a drivers license,” Dr. Cavazos-Rehg said. “It’s an exciting time when a kid gets a drivers license, and you don’t want to lose it.”
Additionally, researchers say that other factors – such as drivers education courses and laws that require teens to have more driving practice prior to licensure – may play roles in the reduced number of driving fatalities and injuries among teen drivers.
Dr. Cavazos-Rehg said that there is a possibility that other social and cultural factors may contribute to the decrease in teen drunk driving numbers.
“For the last decade, there has been a lot of publicity around drinking and driving, and laws in general have become more strict,” she said. “It’s not acceptable behavior anymore.”
While there are discrepancies between state laws regarding teen drivers, Dr. Cavazos-Rehg doesn’t believe that states with more restrictive policies are experiencing cultural changes regarding driving behavior and teen drinking at an elevated rate compared to states with less restrictive policies in place.
“I see these cultural changes are occurring in all states across the country,” she said. “All teens are being affected.”