Can we protect teenagers during this dangerous rite of passage?
"You can’t just hand your teenager a license and expect him to come home alive."
—Lee Cunningham, father of 13-year-old Jared Cunningham, who died as a passenger in a car driven by another teenager.
Also on our site: A Guide To California's New Teen Graduated Driver License 
Of all the teenagers who will die this year, more will meet their deaths in the twisted metal of a car crash than in any other way. If statistics hold, two-thirds of those kids won’t be driving. Teenage drivers will kill not only themselves and their friends, but one out of five people who dies in a car crash.
And yet, most people believe that drug addiction is the greatest threat to teenagers, not car accidents. In a recent AAA study, nearly half of the people polled said just that. Only 22 percent of the respondents answered motor vehicle crashes.
The truth: Motor vehicle crashes will kill about a third of 15- to 20-year-olds who die this year.
Our kids are dying on the roads and we are hard pressed to recognize the problem. Studies and industry professionals have said everything from "kids will be kids" to "they need more training" to "just don’t let them drive."
Some states and safety organizations are frantically searching for answers to this vexing problem. The one thing that seems to show a glimmer of hope, and to help reverse the numbers, is a system that phases in the learning through stages, a graduated licensing system.
Earning a driver’s license is a rite of passage for a 16-year-old. It represents mobility and independence, and not only for the teen—parents are often relieved of chauffeuring their kids to sports practice, part-time jobs, and the movies. The pressure, and sometimes the need, for kids to drive has grown enormously as our society has grown more complex.
Reason would dictate that driver training would grow and expand along with the demand. However, in the mid 1970s a study showed that driver training programs in place at the time, with limited formal on-the-road training, did nothing to decrease a young driver’s risk of crashing. This information, along with a public education budget crisis in the mid 1980s, caused the decimation of driver education programs. Since 1975, the number of high schools offering driver education has dropped by 50 percent.
Today fewer than half of the country’s 16-year-olds get any official driver training. Those who do can be turned loose on the highway if they take a driver education and driver training course, have an adult verify that they have practiced, and then take a test. Nationwide, on-the-road training time averages less than six hours before teens get their licenses. After 18, a teenager is not required to have any formal training to take a driver test.
More training and practice before kids go solo is an obvious answer to the problem. However, driving instructors, educators, and safety consultants will tell you that attitude and behavior are more powerful indicators of a teen’s potential to crash than skills alone, and that crash numbers drop significantly as young drivers gain experience.
Some argue that it is in the nature of young people to take risks, push the limits. That you simply can’t do anything about the popular guy with a fast car, and his need to show off. But driver education proponents, such as Jerry Curry, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), believe that common sense shows it’s better to understand more about controlling a car rather than less—even if a teen is overly confident, full of a youth’s sense of invincibility.
Driving requires the kind of motor skills that are learned gradually, by hands-on experience—the same way an athlete learns a competitive sport.
Driver education should achieve a balance between teaching kids basic driving skills and helping them to recognize risky situations and respond appropriately. This combination could go a long way toward reducing the teen driver crash rate.
Researchers and such organizations as NHTSA and AAA recommend starting with a graduated licensing program—a multi-level training program, with licenses providing expanded privilege as the teens gain experience and knowledge.
NHTSA has prepared a model graduated licensing law which recommends a basic driver education course during the early stage of a graduated licensing system, and a more advanced safety oriented course in an intermediate stage.
In the U.S., the states of Washington and Michigan have adopted a graduated teen licensing program, part of which requires 50 hours of driving experience, including ten at night, with a parent or guardian in the car. The results in Washington show a teenage collision rate nearly 23 percent lower than the national average. Michigan’s program was implemented on April 1, so the results aren’t in. In Canada, preliminary findings by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation have found a 55 percent decrease in fatalities involving 16-year-olds for the first two years after a graduated licensing program became law.
In California, a bill proposing a graduated license program (Senate Bill 1329, Senator Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City) was being heard in the Legislature at press time (see "Commentary," this issue).
In Utah, a graduated licensing bill was recently proposed in the Legislature, but failed to pass.
The demise of driver training in California
In the late 1940s, the California Legislature enacted the Stanley Driver Education and Driver Training Law, mandating driver training in public schools. From 1955 to 1990, California schools offered the required driver training courses, free of charge, that 16- and 17-year-olds needed to get a driver’s license.
The late 1980s brought a school budget crisis, and significant changes in how schools were funded. Both Governor Deukmejian and Governor Wilson diverted funds from the driver training budget. In 1990 Governor Wilson exercised his line item veto to reduce the customary $21.2 million annual appropriation for driver training to a mere $1,000. The year before the funds were cut, 378 public school districts offered the training and 218,762 public school students completed the course. By the ’91-’92 school year, only 102 districts were offering the training, and only 26,087 students completed driver training. Since then, increasing numbers of California’s public schools have abolished driver training.
Without the public school courses, the only way teenagers can take driver training is to pay for commercial behind-the-wheel classes. Considering that nearly 28 percent of California’s kids live in poverty, the only legal option left for many is to wait until they are 18 to obtain a driver’s license—without training.
Furthermore, the number of unlicensed teenagers on the roads—presumably many of them untrained, and uninsured—is on the rise.
This article was first published in July 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.