Fewer drive at 16 -- and fewer die - Crash toll plunges; stiffer license laws just part of reason

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Fewer drive at 16 -- and fewer die - Crash toll plunges; stiffer license laws just part of reason
Chicago Tribune (IL) - Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Author: Ted Gregory, Tribune reporter

For their parents, a driver's license was a symbol of adulthood, a gateway to freedom, a long-anticipated rite of passage.

For today's teens? Not so much.

Fewer 16-year-olds in Illinois are getting their licenses. That drop, it turns out, has kept more of them alive to see their 17th birthdays.

The easy explanation for the decline is Illinois' tougher new teen licensing requirements, started in 2006. But it's clear that's not the only reason.

"I didn't particularly need a license because I didn't have a car," said Sean Allen, 18, of Elmhurst, who got his license in November but still hasn't driven alone. "I don't have money for a car, and my mom made it pretty clear that I needed to pay for everything myself.

"Besides," he added, "I get around pretty easily by bike. And, I'll admit it: I'm kind of a cheapskate."

Anna Block, 16, of Lake Forest, took driver education at Lake Forest High School in 2009. But, "I just never made it a top priority" to get a license, she said. Part of her delay stemmed from being a cheerleader, which kept her busy five days a week after school and provided her with older teammates who had licenses and could drive her to and from school.

"Also," Block added, "I've seen a lot of stuff happen with some people who have gotten their licenses." That includes a friend who got a DUI and other students who have had similar scrapes with the law, Block said. Many of her friends do have their driver's licenses but getting one "depends on parents' trust and how well they're doing in school," she said. "Some parents just don't trust their kids."

Her mother "at first was scared," she said. "Now, she's been asking me, do you want to go get your license?"

That's a more involved undertaking since June 2006, when Illinois lawmakers doubled the number of hours -- to 50 from 25 -- of adult-supervised driving required before a driver with a learner's permit could get a license. The next year, the number of 16-year-olds with licenses fell by nearly 5 percent -- to 74,675 from 78,250 -- even though the state's teen population increased.

Then, on Jan. 1, 2008, Illinois imposed a sweeping overhaul of teen driving laws, the heart of which tripled the time -- to 9 months from 3 months -- a teen driver must possess a learner's permit before acquiring a license. That year, the number of 16-year-olds with licenses dropped again, this time by 17 percent, to 61,862.

The decrease is continuing. The Illinois secretary of state's office estimates that fewer than 60,000 driver's licenses were issued to 16-year-olds in 2009.

Rob Foss, who has been studying teen drivers for decades, contends that Illinois' comprehensive graduated driver licensing (GDL) -- an increasingly popular system that eases teens into full driving privileges after they safely navigate a period of restrictive driving -- "certainly is a piece" of the recent drop in 16-year-olds with licenses.

But Foss, director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina, also noted that Illinois' overhaul of its GDL system in 2008 corresponded with the recession, "and that clearly placed a downward spiral on licensing among teenage drivers."

He dismissed the suggestion that the growing popularity of social networking sites has fueled the decline. The drop in Illinois may be nothing more than a settling-out period while the teen population adjusts to the change, Foss said. When North Carolina imposed its graduated driver's licensing system in 1997, the state "had a two-year period of chaos in licensing," including five types of driver's licenses or learner's permits, Foss said. "Then the numbers of licenses began to rise."

"When you do this, it changes the world," he said. "Now, with this series of steps teenagers need to go through, they may just say, 'What the heck, I may just wait until I'm 18 so I don't have to deal with all that.' "

Waiting until they turn 18 is a way for teens to opt out of graduated driver licensing. In Illinois and many other states, when an individual turns 18, he or she can walk in to a driver's license facility, pass the road, written and eye tests and walk out with a license.

Dylan Berry, 17, of Arlington Heights may take that approach, following his older brother's lead and waiting until he turns 18 in September to get his license. But because he obtained his learner's permit in December and the nine-month permit period ends in August, Berry could get his license a few weeks before his 18th birthday.

At this point, though, he's unsure he'll have the 50 hours of adult-supervised driving required to obtain a license before his 18th birthday. Meanwhile, he gets around on in-line skates.

"Totally," he said when asked if he's comfortable being a blade traveler. "For one, I like rollerblading. I've been doing it forever. I don't use them every day, but three or four times a week definitely. I use them for transportation 98 percent of the time."

Whatever the reasons for the delay in obtaining a license, research suggests positive consequences. Since Illinois imposed the tougher teen driving laws in 2008, the number of fatal crashes involving teen drivers dropped to 92 last year, the Illinois State Police reported. In 2007, that number was 187.

National studies indicate a similar impact from GDL systems. Research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that the most comprehensive GDL systems yielded fatal crash rates among 15- to 17-year-olds that were 30 percent lower than systems rated "poor" by the institute. Insurance claims for 16- and 17-year-old drivers also dropped by 16 percent in states with strong GDL systems, the institute reported.

That success is spurring a ripple of a movement to raise the minimum driver's license age to 17, which only New Jersey has. The STANDUP Act, as it's known, is a federal bill that would link transportation funding for states to GDL components, including a 17-year-old minimum licensing age.

Foss, from the Center for the Study of Young Drivers, cautioned that research on raising the minimum licensing age is lacking, that the proposal fails to account for states' different driving conditions, and that the federal initiative might punish many of the 49 states that have effective GDL systems but don't have 17 as the minimum driver's license age.

"This is not like changing a speed limit," Foss said. "This is changing something that is integral to people's way of life. You're going to get resistance."

On that the researcher and the 17-year-old skater agree.

"People have been getting their licenses at 16 forever," Berry said. "It's just like tradition."