Driver's Seat
Jan/Feb 2009 Issue

Arkansas to consider strengthening its teen driver licensing law to save more lives

Arkansas teens have rates of motor vehicle deaths that are nearly twice as high as the United States overall, so lawmakers will make a push this year to put some teeth in the state’s licensing law that heretofore has been more bark than bite.

The state’s existing teen licensing law has been called a Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) system, but it lacks the components of most GDL laws across the country. Indeed, it is one of the most lenient systems in the nation and was classified as “marginal” by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“Teens make up about 7 percent of the driving population in Arkansas, but they constitute about 13 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes,” said Mike Right, vice president of AAA Public Affairs. “And it’s not just the teens themselves who are injured and die in these crashes. Almost 20 percent of the deaths on Arkansas roads occur in crashes involving teen drivers.”

According to Arkansas State Police records, 453 Arkansas teens age 16–20 were killed in traffic crashes between 2003 and 2007. In addition, more than 50,000 teens were injured in wrecks in the same five-year time period.

The risk that Arkansas teens face is clearly evident when their crash rates are compared with those of other drivers. From 1999–2005, 23 per 100,000 teenagers ages 14 to 19 were killed in motor vehicle crashes nationwide. Yet during that same period in Arkansas, 40 per 100,000 teens were killed, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“Teenagers in Arkansas die at a rate almost twice the national rate,” said Dr. Mary E. Aitken, medical director of the Injury Prevention Center at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock. “A combination of inexperience, immaturity and risk-taking behavior combine to make the first year or two behind the wheel the riskiest period of life for driving.”

To help prevent these needless deaths, Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, D-Crossett, hopes to pass legislation during this session that would toughen the state’s GDL law. The purpose of a graduated system is to introduce teens to driving gradually with some restrictions so they can gain experience in less risky situations. As they progress through the system, the restrictions are lifted.

Presently, a teen in Arkansas can get a Learner’s License when they are 14 years old, one of the youngest ages for children to be eligible for a permit anywhere in the country. They must pass a written test and be accompanied by an adult while driving and not have any crashes or convictions for six months before applying for an Intermediate License at age 16.

The Intermediate License stage has few restrictions. The law requires all passengers in a vehicle driven by a teen with an Intermediate License to wear seat belts. At age 18, the driver is eligible for a regular license if they hadn’t had any crashes or traffic convictions in the previous six months.

While there are stages the teen must graduate through, the law doesn’t contain any of the restrictions that AAA recommends and that most other states have enacted to keep teens safe behind the wheel.

Jeffress plans to require seat belt use for teen drivers and to restrict teens from driving at night, which both Louisiana and Mississippi have in their GDL laws. Studies indicate that four out of 10 teenage deaths in motor vehicles occur between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The bill also will include restrictions on the number of teen passengers allowed in the car. When there are multiple passengers in the vehicle, the crash risk is three to five times greater than when driving alone, studies show. To help further reduce distractions, Jeffress likely will include a ban on cell phones for teen drivers.

Jeffress introduced a similar bill two years ago but it was defeated in the House of Representatives. This time, Jeffress has enlisted Rep. Gene Shelby, D-Hot Springs, to co-sponsor the bill in the House. An emergency room physician, Shelby has seen firsthand how deadly teen crashes can be.

“We have worked since the last session to see that we are successful this time,” Jeffress said.

Crash Fatalities

Windshield Crash
Teens make up about 7 percent of the driving population in Arkansas, but they constitute about 13 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes. Fotolia.com photo

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