A Roadmap To Safer Teen Drivers

By John S. Wisniewski

Transportation data shows that every nine minutes, a teenage driver is involved in an accident in New Jersey. In 2006, there were 55,729 automobile accidents involving teenagers in New Jersey, killing 48 drivers and 19 passengers.

This horrible loss of young life is what led the Legislature to create the Teen Driver Study Commission. This past March, the 15-member panel issued its final report, containing 47 recommendations to help improve teen driver safety for drivers age sixteen to twenty, 14 of which were considered “essential.”

Many of these recommendations are common sense reforms that would help protect and educate new, inexperienced drivers.

One such recommendation already approved by the Assembly and awaiting a hearing in the Senate would close the loophole in the state’s existing seat belt law. Currently, rear seat passengers age 18 years and older are not required to buckle up unless they are being driven by a person with a graduated drivers license (GDL). Yet, according to date from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the use of seat belts by rear seat passengers reduces the risk of death or serious injury in a motor vehicle accident by up to 75 percent.

The measure (A-870), sponsored by my colleagues Assemblymen Nelson Albano and Matthew Milam, would require every person in a car to wear a seat belt at all times while the vehicle is in motion and would allow police to issue a ticket if any passenger fails to comply. As the single most effective restraining device during an automobile accident, everyone in a vehicle, regardless of age or seating position, should be required to buckle up.

Several other recommendations deserve similar legislative attention.

One such recommendation calls for implementing an event-based GDL monitoring program, to better help new drivers learn from their mistakes.

The point of having a GDL is to teach teens how to become good drivers. Creating a program that monitors their driving behavior and creates a system of event-based sanctions, such as extra training, GDL license suspension, and even full license postponement, for motor vehicle and GDL provision violations will likely be much more effective in modifying new driver behavior. It also will allow the state Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) to issue more appropriate sanctions based on the type of driving violation. This, in turn, will help educate teen drivers and stop bad driving practices before they become dangerous bad habits.

Another would make parents more involved in the process of their children’s licensure by requiring them to attend a teen driver orientation program with their child prior to his or her applying for a permit.

Involving parents prior to the permit phase, when newly drivers are required to be accompanied by a licensed adult will help to ensure that parents are familiar with the latest set of driving laws and with precisely how our GDL program operates. After all, parents are one of the most important pieces of the licensing process.

Several others focus on giving teens more time behind the wheel, which is essential, since first hand experience is the only sure way to make a better driver. Research shows that it takes over 1,000 hours of driving before a teenager’s crash risk significantly drops. Yet we currently only require six hours of direct, documented behind the wheel training over a six month period.

To give teens the time they need to become confident drivers, we must extend the permit phase of licensure to at least a year, in order to give teenagers more time behind the wheel with a supervised adult. Moreover, we should increase the minimum hours of certified practice driving teens receive during the permit phase to at least 50 hours. Teens who choose to get their permit after 16 should be required to log at least 100 hours, with at least a portion of those practice hours logged during nighttime conditions.

Finally, the Legislature must, once and for all, standardize a traffic safety and driver education curriculum, so that every teenager, regardless of where they go to school, receives the essential skills they will need to be safer drivers on our state’s highways.

We owe it to the parents of teens – and to teenagers themselves – to implement these recommendations before another young life is tragically cut short.

John S. Wisniewski is a Democratic New Jersey General Assembly member representing the 19th Legislative District, which includes a portion of Middlesex County. Assemblyman Wisniewski also is the chairman of the Assembly Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committee.

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