For generations parents have been reluctantly handing their teens the keys to the family car and urging them to be careful, all the while worried that their sons or daughters will get into an accident as a result of too little experience, too many distractions or both. In recent years state transportation officials have taken steps to alleviate fears about teen drivers by passing graduated driver laws, but some might wonder if they’re enough.

Pennsylvania’s driver laws for teens are more strict than in many other states, and at the end of last year the state strengthened its rules for young drivers. Teens must complete 65 hours of behind-the-wheel instruction, up from the previous 50 hours. Of the extra 15, 10 hours must be performed at night and another five in inclement weather.

During the first six months of having their junior driver’s license, teen drivers are allowed to have only one passenger under 18 in their vehicle. After that, up to three passengers under 18 are allowed. In addition, teen drivers must wear a seat belt and ensure their passengers do the same to avoid a citation for a primary offense. There are also restrictions on handheld devices for teen drivers to cut the risk of distracted driving.

But are all these laws enough to avoid accidents? Some safe-driving advocates say no. Car crashes are still the No. 1 killer of teenagers; about 3,000 driving-age teens were killed in 2009, and despite laws like those passed in Pennsylvania, young drivers still pose the highest risk of car accidents. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teens are four times more likely to crash as older drivers.

Safe-driving advocates are hopeful that a federal transportation bill signed into law last month will push Pennsylvania and other states to strengthen their laws even further. It includes $46 million in incentive grants for states to do so, and provides $27 million for states that adopt tougher laws against using cellphones for non-emergency purposes. It’s the first time the federal government has specified these types of standards, and highway safety advocates are calling it a big step forward. Whether the law goes far enough to reduce serious car accidents remains to be seen.

Source: Kaiser Health News, “New Federal Transportation Law Encourages Stricter Teen Driving Regs,” Michelle Andrews, July 30, 2012

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