Accidents drop with graduated licenses

Posted: Wednesday, January 21, 2004

WAUSAU, Wis. The number of crashes involving 16-year-old drivers and related fatalities dropped significantly in Wiscon-sin after the state placed new restrictions on beginning drivers, an Associated Press review found.

The trends, based on the first two full years the new graduated license law has been in effect, provide evidence that it is reducing the carnage caused by the most inexperienced drivers.

The law, which took effect in September 2000, is designed to make sure new drivers get more skills, not just a set of keys when they turn 16. They must have more supervised time behind the wheel, may not have multiple friends as passengers, and may not drive from midnight to 5 a.m. except for work or school.

The AP conducted a computer analysis of more than 1 million state Transportation Department accident reports.

It found that in 2002 and 2001, 16-year-old drivers had an average of 7,358 accidents investigated by police each year statewide, a 15 percent drop from the average total of 8,696 for drivers that age from 1996 through 2000.

Over the same two years, accidents with a 16-year-old driver at the wheel killed an average of 21 people across Wisconsin, counting either the drivers themselves or their passengers.

That was a 16 percent drop compared with the previous five years, when on average there were 25 fatalities each year among young drivers and their passengers.

John Alley, a legislative liaison for the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles, said the AP's findings are hopeful, but statistically at least two more years of data are needed to be sure the new licensing requirements are working as advertised.

''We really like what we see. Everything is pointing toward this reducing crashes, but we really want a little more detail before we say it is a victory,'' he said.

Forty-six states have passed at least some graduated license regulations since 1996 when Florida became the first state to enact such a system, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based in Arlington, Va.

Other states with laws similar to Wisconsin's have reported anywhere from a 10 percent to a 30 percent reduction in teen accidents, said Allan Williams, chief scientist for the group.

''It is progress but there is still a big problem,'' he said.

Tyler Vandenheuvel of Green-leaf, Wis., was 16 in February 2002 when he lost control of his car on a snow-covered road. It skidded into a ditch and crashed into a utility pole.

Vandenheuvel disliked the new restrictions placed on him as a beginning driver but followed them primarily because his parents supported them, he said.

''Did it make me a better driver? I don't know. Maybe,'' said Vandenheuvel, now a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

The AP study found on average in 2002 and 2001, the number of 16-year-old drivers and their passengers who were severely hurt in crashes dropped 31 percent compared with the previous five years. The number who suffered minor injuries dropped 20 percent.

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