Study: Teen wrecks down

Teenagers have to wait longer to get their driver’s license, must have more practice behind the wheel and, at first, can’t have passengers in the car or drive late at night.

More than five years after those restrictions began, accidents have gone down significantly. In Johnson County, accidents involving teen drivers have dropped by more than 25 percent in about five years, according to a study by the Indiana Youth Institute.

The study showed teen accidents statewide plunged about 21 percent since 2008 and credited the state’s graduated driver’s license requirements, which first took effect in 2009.

Previously, teens could get a learner’s permit as soon as they turned 15 and could get their license one month after their 16th birthday. The graduated license law increased both of those age limits by six months and also requires teens to get at least 50 hours of driving practice with a certified instructor, including 10 at night. New drivers also can’t have other passengers in the car, can’t drive late at night and aren’t allowed to use cellphones at all while driving for the first six months after getting their license.

The additional time behind the wheel is ensuring teens get more experience before heading out on their own, a driver’s education teacher said. The law limiting distractions also helps teens, while road projects around Johnson County in recent years have helped make certain routes and intersections safer for all drivers, Johnson County Sheriff Doug Cox said.

Any parent who has taught a teen son or daughter to drive knows there is more to driving than just knowing which pedal is the gas and which is the brake and how to steer, said Sam Ruff, driver’s education coordinator for Central Indiana Education Service Center, which provides driver’s ed for multiple Johnson County school districts.

The required 50 hours of driving practice gives teens more time to learn basic maneuvers and get a better feel for how to be aware of other drivers on the road, Ruff said.

Automobile accidents are the No. 1 cause of death nationwide for teens, so giving them more time to mature and more practice is critical, Ruff said. About 10 to 15 percent of all accidents in Indiana involve teen drivers.

“Students nowadays don’t necessarily pay attention to their parents’ driving while they’re in the vehicle. So it’s really important for a lot of students to be mindful of the things that are going on outside of the vehicles, to be aware of their surroundings beyond the 4- or 5-foot foot radius of their being,” Ruff said.

By restricting who else can be in the car, when teens can drive and cellphone use, the law is helping eliminate additional distractions for drivers who aren’t experienced, Cox said. Distractions, especially cellphones, often are a cause of accidents no matter what age range, Cox said. New drivers aren’t allowed to load up the car with friends and drive to the mall on the weekend, for example, so that 16-year-old isn’t trying to concentrate on the road while his or her friends are goofing off in the back seat.

Teens are also driving less, although exact numbers about how much less and causes haven’t been studied, Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles spokesman Josh Gillespie said.

Part of that has come from the increased age requirement, which instantly cut about six months of time out of the data, Gillespie said. But other factors, such as the bad job market for teens after the recession or new technology allowing teens to communicate easier without getting together at someone’s house, could also be keeping teens off the roads, he said.

Vehicles and roads are also getting safer, Cox said.

Newer cars have features such as blind-spot monitors or back-up cameras, which can help an inexperienced teen driver.

Local governments also have continued to make improvements to roads that are increasing safety. For example, the state recently put up a stoplight at Smokey Row Road and State Road 135, where several high-speed accidents had occurred in recent years, Cox said. Roundabouts, medians blocking left turns and wider, flatter intersections also make driving safer, he said.

Schools, parents and legislators are all playing a part in making driving safer for teens, he said.

“I’d like to think a lot of people have a hand in that: Parents, law enforcement, legislators, the carmakers. Because I will tell you, since I’ve been a road officer, I was out every weekend on a fatal accident. And as sheriff, I’ve been out very seldom; and there’s nothing worse than making a death notification,” Cox said.

Graduated license law

In 2009, state lawmakers approved a graduated driver’s license law, which added more restrictions for teens getting their license:

Learner’s permit: Must be at least 16 years old without driver’s education. Teens can get their permit at 15 if they are signed up for driver’s education. Driver’s must have their permit for at least 180 days before being able to apply for a license.

Probationary license: Must be 16 years, 180 days old with driver’s education course completion. Without, age requirement is 16 years, 270 days. Teens must have 50 hours of driving practiced with a certified instructor or a licensed driver 25-years-old or older. Ten hours must be completed at night.

Passenger restrictions: For the first 180 days after getting a license, no passengers are allowed unless they are an adult over 25 years old, with exceptions for spouses, siblings and children.

Driving hours: For first 180 days, no driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. No driving between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. on weekends after the first 180 days until age 18.

Cellphones: Can’t use a cellphone at all while driving until age 18, unless the driver is calling 911.

SOURCE: Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles