Driver’s license changes save lives

In the first 3½ years after it became a law, Indiana’s Graduated Driver’s License produced its intended effect — fewer teens injured and killed in motor vehicle crashes. But a new state law that went into effect July 1 also showed that keeping young drivers safe necessitates more than just focusing on 16-year-olds exercising the newfound freedom to drive.

The 2009 law establishing the graduated license included bans on cellphone use and on late-night and early-morning driving, with limited exceptions. But the key component of the law was the graduated license, which raised to 16½ the age at which a teen could get a driver’s license and only after logging 50 hours of supervised driving time. Research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that graduated licenses reduce the incidence of fatal crashes of 16-year-old drivers by an average of 11 percent.

Indiana’s original law looked at the experience of other states and went into effect July 1, 2009. The Indiana University Public Policy Institute found that from Jan. 1, 2009, to Dec. 31, 2012, younger drivers had 31 percent fewer crashes and saw injuries decline by nearly 40 percent.

Sherry Deane, public affairs specialist from AAA Hoosier Motor Club, helped push for the graduated license in 2009 and recently said the law’s effect surpassed her hopes for it.

“It is a great feeling because we made such an impact on not only the teens that have been affected, but their families and friends who did not have to suffer because of those teens being possibly injured or killed in a crash,” she said.

Deane said graduated license proponents wondered if the restrictions might prompt some teens to delay getting their licenses until they were 18, when the restrictions would be lifted. If that happened, it stood to reason that fewer teen drivers would reduce the odds of crashes involving teens.

Time has shown fewer teens are getting their licenses, but a University of Michigan study found this bottoming out is based more on the bottom line — teens think it’s too expensive to own and operate a car.

Teens who delay getting a license may still pay a high cost, even with their lives. While serious accidents among younger teens declined in the wake of the law, Deane says the state began to see an increase in the number of fatalities among 18- to 20-year-olds, who could get a license without needing to complete 50 hours of supervised driving.

“New drivers, no matter what their age, have not mastered the unconscious driving tasks, where we scan 360 degrees, we use defensive driving techniques,” said Betty Brandtmiller, owner of Safeway Driving School in Fort Wayne.

The spike in older teen traffic deaths did not go unnoticed. State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, sponsored a bill that passed through the General Assembly and became law July 1. The revamped law expands the ban on cellphones for drivers up to age 21 and limits night and morning driving for drivers up to age 18. And the requirements have been expanded to 18-year-old drivers, who now must complete 50 hours of supervised training to acquire a license.

“I’m a firm believer in data-driven safety,” said Soliday, a former commercial airline pilot who compares supervised driving requirements to logging his early flight hours seated next to an experienced pilot.

Soliday also built an incentive into the law, hoping more 15-year-olds learn to drive, by reducing the waiting period for a license by 90 days for students who take driver’s education and log their 50 supervised hours. Soliday says he’ll keep an eye on deaths occurring in accidents with teens behind the wheel.

“Now we wait and see if the numbers in that older age group come down,” Soliday said. “And if they don’t, we’ll have to ask ‘Why?’ and ‘What’s next?’”

Soliday’s questions are data driven but not without human concern. They could just as easily be uttered by grieving parents, coping with the death or serious injury of their teen driver.