In December 2010, those who worked on the 2007-2008 overhaul of Connecticut's teen driver law gathered at the state Capitol to review and celebrate evidence of the new law's progress. Connecticut had transformed its teen driver law from one of the nation's most lenient to one of the strictest. Data from the first two years showed not only substantial crash reductions, but also our state leading the nation on a percentage basis.
The day following the gathering, four teens died in a crash in Griswold, a grim reminder that we cannot rest on the effectiveness of the 2008 revisions.
Vigilance demands that we recognize the factors that threaten to halt and even reverse our progress.
The first challenge is that the teen driver population regenerates every year; the Department of Motor Vehicles annually licenses about 30,000 new drivers under age 20. These new drivers and their parents and guardians present a new group to be educated about the state's rules and the under-appreciated dangers of teen driving.
Under the 2008 law, a parent or guardian of each 16- or 17-year-old with a learner's permit is required to attend a two-hour class on safety. Surveys show that a majority of parents accept and appreciate the class, but we have yet to determine how best to use this invaluable undivided attention, by standardizing what is taught in those classes. An advisory group is tackling the problem, but implementation will require effort from the traffic safety community, coordination with driving schools and continued buy-in from parents.
Increasingly sophisticated technology in vehicles presents another problem. Numerous studies show that more than 50 percent of teen drivers text while driving. Meanwhile, new vehicles frequently have dashboard-mounted screens with interactive functions, synchronization to smart phones, and Internet and social media access.
These burgeoning electronics, in general, are not covered by our state's mobile electronic device rules, which essentially ban all drivers from using hand-held devices to make phone calls. For teen drivers and their parents, these evolving electronics pose this daunting question: Can a parent who surfs the Internet or posts Facebook or Linked In updates while driving deliver a meaningful warning to a teen driver about the dangers of texting?
A recent national study by the AAA Foundation addressed the risks of teen drivers carrying passengers, another persistent issue. Connecticut bans teens in the first year of driving from transporting non-family members. Covering 2005 to 2010, the AAA report examines nearly 10,000 fatalities of 16- and 17-year-old drivers who had passengers. Passenger restrictions are the part of teen driver laws that most relies on parents. The AAA report documents that passenger rules are widely ignored. Crashes among teen drivers with teen passengers is emerging as an intractable aspect of safer teen driving.
Better fuel efficiency may have an unintended negative consequence. Undoubtedly, teen driver crashes declined nationally in the past four years in part because driving is more expensive. But to the extent that hybrids, electric cars and better mileage bring down those costs, we can expect teen driver miles, and crashes, to increase.
Lastly, a recent New Jersey study suggests that Connecticut should revisit the idea — considered but not adopted by our 2007-2008 Safe Teen Driving Task Force — of requiring teen drivers to display a decal on their vehicles. Police cannot stop a car based only on perception that the driver may be subject to teen driver restrictions, so a decal aids in that identification.
New Jersey, the first American state to try decals, now reports that the system has increased compliance, reduced crashes and helped with enforcement, while parent fears about predators targeting teens have not materialized.
Driving remains the No. 1 killer of those under 20. Our progress in Connecticut is commendable, but the worst thing we can do now is to pat ourselves on the back and ignore the factors that threaten to stall our forward motion or throw us into reverse.
Tim Hollister of Bloomfield publishes a blog for parents of teen drivers, http://www.fromreidsdad.org.