LONG VALLEY — With the start of a new school year just a few weeks away, the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition urges families with teens in their household to brush up on their knowledge of the state’s Graduated Driver License (GDL) program.
The GDL program, which has been in effect since 2001, is a three-step licensing process (permit, probationary license and basic license) designed to help teen drivers gain experience and build skill while minimizing those things that cause them the greatest risk — distraction caused by passengers and the use of cell phones and other electronic devices, as well as driving late at night and riding unbelted. Addressing risk is essential since car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in New Jersey and nationwide. Last year, there were 49,000 teen-related crashes on the state’s roadways that claimed the lives of 19 teen drivers and 14 teen passengers.
Under New Jersey’s GDL program, a teen may obtain a permit at 16 years of age after successfully passing a written test and completing a minimum of six hours of in-car, driver training. During the permit phase, families are encouraged to schedule plenty of practice driving that exposes their teens to a variety of weather conditions, roadway types and times of day.
“Practice is key for building skill and ensuring that your teen is fully prepared to drive solo,” said Pam Fischer, Leader of the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition, a partnership funded by The Allstate Foundation in partnership with the National Safety Council. “That’s why the permit phase is the optimal time to expose your teen to every possible driving scenario.
“While families are busy, particularly during the school year,” Fischer continued, “making time for behind the wheel practice is essential. The last thing you want is for your teen to be driving in inclement weather or on an unfamiliar roadway for the first time without guidance or supervision. That’s a recipe for disaster.”
Once a teen is at least 17 years of age and has completed the permit phase and passed the behind-the-wheel test administered by the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission, he or she is granted a probationary license. Teens must hold a probationary license for a minimum of 12 months and during that time period may transport only one passenger (unless a parent or guardian is in the vehicle) and be off the road between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. Additionally, probationary drivers may not use cell phones (hand-held or hands-free) or other electronic devices while behind the wheel, and everyone riding in the vehicle must be properly restrained in seat belts or the appropriate car or booster seat (if the passenger is a child under 8 years of age or 80 pounds). Permit and probationary license holder must also display a GDL decal on the front and rear license plate when they’re behind the wheel to aid with enforcement.
Crash data shows that distraction and inattention caused not just by electronic devices, but other passengers is the leading cause of teen crashes in the Garden State. “While teens want to drive themselves and their friends and siblings to and from school, parents must understand the risks associated with teen drivers and passengers,” cautioned Fischer. “A teen driver is twice as likely to be killed in a crash while carrying just one passenger regardless of whether the passenger is a friend or a sibling.”
Parents are urged to reinforce the passenger restriction with their teen drivers, as well as teens who are not yet driving but may be passengers in their friends’ vehicles. “The key is to discuss the law, establish firm guidelines for compliance and address any violations as soon as they occur,” stressed Fischer. Additionally, she called on parents to not only talk to their teens, but the parents of their teens’ friends to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
The Coalition also recommends that parents monitor their teens’ cell phone use (records can be accessed by visiting cell phone carrier web sites), particularly during times when they are likely to be on the road. “This is a generation that relies on their cell phones and other devices to communicate. While they may be particularly skilled at texting with one hand, they’re not skilled when it comes driving,” Fischer pointed out. “No other age group on the road has a higher crash risk. In fact, teens are at the highest risk of being involved in a crash during their first 12 to 24 months of driving.”
Ensuring that probationary license holders adhere to the nighttime driving restriction (no driving between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.) is also critical since 40 percent of teen driver fatal crashes occur between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. “While it may be tempting for parents to allow their teens to drive past the 11 p.m. curfew, particularly if they’re involved in school activities, resist the urge,” said Fischer. “A teen may not think it’s cool to be picked up by mom or dad, or a parent may find the late night run inconvenient, but safety should always trump convenience and perception,” said Fischer.
Once a probationary driver has logged at least 12 months of unsupervised driving, he or she may return to MVC and obtain a basic or unrestricted license. It is the teen driver’s responsibility to do this; teens who fail to change their license continue to drive under the GDL program and may be stopped and cited by a police officer if they’re violating any of the GDL restrictions. The Coalition also recommends that parents make a photo copy of their teens’ probationary drivers license and tack it on the refrigerator or a place where they’ll see it often for handy reference. Parents should make note of the issuance date and 12 months later remind their teens that it’s time to go back to MVC to update their license.
Under New Jersey law, parents of minors (under the age of 18) may also use the information on the driver’s license photocopy to check their teens’ driving records and keep tabs on their safety. If the inquiry uncovers GDL or other violations, parents are encouraged to sit down with their teens and have a discussion about what they’re doing on the road.
“It’s not spying,” Fischer stressed. “It’s about being an involved, caring parent. Research shows that teens who report having parents that set rules and monitor their activities in a helpful, supportive way are half as likely to be in a crash, 71 percent less likely to drive intoxicated, 30 percent less likely to use a cell phone while driving, and 50 percent more likely to buckle up.”
To assist families in understanding and leveraging the proven principles of the GDL program, the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition has developed an online GDL tool kit. From fact sheets and brochures, to videos and posters, the tool kit is filled with free resources designed to facilitate greater awareness, education and advocacy of the GDL program at home and in the community. The GDL tool kit can be accessed online at www.njteendriving.com/gdl-toolkit. For more information about the Teen Safe Driving Coalition, visit http://www. nsc.org/safety_road/TeenDriving/Pages/NewJerseyTeenSafeDriving.aspx.
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