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More teens are dying behind the wheel — how NJ’s bucking the trend

car crash accident on street, damaged automobiles after collision in city
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A new report released by the Governors Highway Safety Association finds fatal crashes involving teen drivers spiked up about 10 percent across the nation last year — but in New Jersey they decreased.

The report, Mission Not Accomplished: Teen Safe Driving, the Next Chapter, recommends other states follow the graduated driver license model developed in New Jersey

Teen safe driving advocate Pam Fischer, the former director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety and the principal author of the report, points out all states have a GDL system. But at age 18, teens in other states age out and are no longer required to go through full GDL programs.

“In New Jersey, no matter whether you’re 16, 17, 18, 19 or 20 years old, you’ve got to hold that learners permit for at least 6 months, and then you’re going to have that probationary license for at least a year — so sometimes you’re going to over 21 when you finish,” she said.

Fischer said we’re the only state in the nation that requires all young people under 21 to do this except Maryland — but that state does not have the same types of restrictions New Jersey imposes for teens holding provisional licenses.

She stressed what’s critically important to remember is “18, 19 and 20 years old, it’s just a number, there’s still inexperience issues and more importantly there are brain development issues. A teenager’s brain doesn’t mature until the early to mid 20s, so how they look at risk as a driver is very different than an older person.”

She added “We need states to understand this and go back and look at their licensing laws and say, Are we doing the best we can for our teenage drivers if we allow them to age out of GDL at 18?”

Fischer pointed out in New Jersey we’ve cut teen driver fatalities in half by the system we have in place, but there’s more we can do with our GDL laws.

“Right now the GDL restriction for drivers is 11 p.m., but research clearly shows that the crash risk for teens goes up after 9 p.m., so lowering that curfew can make a difference,” she said.

She also said Jersey is one of only a handful of states that does not require new drivers to log a minimum number of practice hours on the road — many states require 50 hours of practice driving with at least 10 hours at night. She said that needs to be changed.

Additionally she recommends that parents be required to attend informational sessions with their teens to learn about the graduated driver license.

“And if parents don’t know much about the graduated driver license program, they need to become educated,” she said. “It’s not about a state law saying your kids can’t do this or this. It’s about putting down in place what’s going to help you help your teen get through what are the riskiest driving years.”

Under New Jersey’s GDL program, no one can qualify for a basic license until at least 18 — and that’s only if he or she has first completed other requirements, with restrictions on driving.

Someone who qualifies for a learners permit at age 16 must have six months of supervised driving before moving onto a probationary license — with places limits on what hours the driver can be out, and who else can be in the car. After a year with a probationary license, at at least age 18, the driver can qualify for a basic license.

Someone who starts between 17 and 21 with an examination permit can also move on, after six months of supervised driving, to a probationary license and then eventually a basic license. In that case, 18 is still the youngest age the driver might get a basic license.

Even a driver who starts the process after age 21 follows a similar path — only he or she can move to a probationary license after just three months of supervised driving. That driver still spends a year with the restrictions of a probationary license before moving onto a basic one.

Fischer said national data shows there were 3,885 fatal crashes involving a teen driver in 2014, and that number spiked by about 10 percent last year, although final figures have not been tabulated.

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