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We should proceed with caution when licensing teen age drivers

Young drivers constitute a major highway-safety problem. The traditional proposal to remedy the situation is to raise the driver’s license age. Upon close examination of crashes involving beginning drivers, the solu­tion to this problem is not that simple.

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Beginning drivers are involved in more traffic accidents than experienced drivers. Furthermore, the characteristics of their crashes differ significantly from those of more seasoned drivers.

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Highway-safety studies demonstrate that young drivers’ problems are related to age, inexperience and immaturity. Raising the licensing age alone does not provide on-the-road experience. The beginning driver tends to be less skilled at predicting potentially dangerous situations. He often has trouble handling unusual driving circumstances and minor emergencies. The basic problem is that the young driver brings both inexperience and immaturity to the complex task of driving.

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Beginning teenage drivers are involved in more fatal crashes than any other age group, and are more likely to include three or more occupants — usually other teen-agers. Their crashes are more likely to occur at night, especially on weekends. Excessive speed tends to be a contributing factor. This age group is involved in a higher percentage of single-vehicle crashes and is less likely to use seat belts.

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A license to drive is a ticket to freedom for most teenagers and, in many cases, for their parents, who no longer have to chauffeur them around. But the price is steep — more than a third of all deaths dur­ing the teens’ next two years will be the result of crashes.

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Driver education programs have not solved this dilemma. Training and education programs can help teens learn driving skills, but unfortunately have not produced significantly safer drivers.

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If we are serious about young drivers in our society, we must consider changing the process and procedures by which they learn to drive. We should consider using a graduated licensing system similar to those currently being used in other countries. A graduated license provides beginning drivers the opportunity to gain driving experience while reducing their exposure to risk. The idea is to help beginning drivers learn to drive but control their progression toward full driving privileges.

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Graduated licensing is unique in that drivers progress through a multi-stage licensing process that’s equivalent to receiving a beginner’s permit, then a provisional or restricted license, and finally a regular license. Before receiving full driving privileges, young drivers must first demonstrate responsible driving behavior in progressively more difficult circumstances. During restricted periods, penalties are usually more severe and may call for automatic suspension of driving privileges, or for extending the provisional period.

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Restricting nighttime driving is an essential component of graduated licensing. Limiting initial driving to daytime hours is part of creating a safer environment for teenage drivers and reducing their crash risk. Not only is nighttime driving more difficult for teenagers, but it tends to be recreational, with more distractions and additional risk factors.

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Another typical restriction of a graduated license is either reduced blood-alcohol levels for underage drivers, or a zero tolerance. Some states presently have lower alcohol levels for young drivers, and re­search shows it reduces nighttime fatal crashes involving teens. Other restrictions may limit the number of passengers or ban driving on high­speed roads.

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Our current licensing procedures are not the best. After the compltion of a vision test, a knowledge test and a spin around the block, we hand young people the keys to an automobile and create a high-risk situation. The results and consequences should not be a major surprise!

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Graduated licensing offers an opportunity to control some of the risks faced by young drivers. The limitations delay unrestricted driving until considerably lower risk experience has been accumulated. By the time an unrestricted license is obtained, the driver is older, more experienced and perhaps more mature.

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Mr. Montondo is a schoolteacher in Richland District 2 and has owned and operated A-1 Driver Training School since 1981.

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Article reprint (The State)

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