It’s the leading cause of death for teenagers across the U. S., but when they turn 16 it’s time to drive no matter what. But sometimes the privilege turns tragic.
Reminders dot the northeast Pennsylvania landscape, where makeshift roadside memorials are kept up by loved ones.
Blooming flowers, mementoes, and freshly painted crosses beside a guardrail serve as grim reminders of so far failed efforts by advocates and lawmakers to strengthen Pennsylvania’s teen driving laws that some say are the weakest in the nation.
Among the more vivid recent reminders is a 16-year-old Abington Heights student who received her driver’s license only one month before she died in an accident in Newton Township. in April; and two 19-year-old women not wearing seat belts in two separate fatal crashes in Lackawanna and Wayne counties.
In all, there were 34,376 accidents attributed to younger drivers throughout the state in 2008, the most recent figure available. Of that, 8,654 accidents involved drivers 16 and 17 years old and 14,010 involved 18 and 19 years old _ age groups far more likely to be in an accident than any other. Teen drivers are about five times more likely to be involved in an accident than drivers ages 60 to 64 or 65 to 69.
Questions about whether these tragedies could be averted have been raised for years by advocacy groups that continue to rate the state’s laws on teenage driving as among the worst and most outdated in the nation.
“I don’t know why in Pennsylvania the legislators don’t think this is one of the more important issues,” said Judith Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington D.C.-based organization that issued a report this year comparing teenage driving laws among the states.
“We gave (Pennsylvania) our worst grade and I don’t think you’ve done much since then,” she said. “Every year we lose tens of thousands of people because of inadequate state laws.”
A recent state Department of Transportation report states unequivocally that younger drivers, 21 and under, are responsible for the most crashes statewide compared to all other age groups. The age group accounts for nearly 60 percent of crashes involving more than one vehicle and a little more than 40 percent of crashes involving one vehicle.
The reasons are simple: they lack experience behind the wheel, are prone to overzealous driving and are easily distracted. And the distraction issue has become much more glaring with the prevalence of cell phones and text messaging which take many eyes off the road during those last critical seconds before impact.
“There’s nothing more horrible than having to go to someone’s house and deliver the death message,” said Capt. Jacob Crider, director of the state police Patrol Services Division in Harrisburg. “We all want to see less fatals and traffic accidents.”
Advocates like Stone, state police and some state legislators are rallying for changes in rules applying to teen drivers. Several were included in a bill passed by the House in November that would make not using seat belts a primary offense, restrict the number of passengers in vehicles driven by 16- and 17-year-olds and ban cell phone use. But the legislation that would push the state up a few notches in teenage driving law restrictions remains mired so far.
Although safe driving advocates acknowledge positive changes in state laws over the years guiding teenage driving, including a graduated driver’s license process that requires teens to drive with a parent for six months under a learner’s permit followed by a one-year junior license probation, there are several areas that could improve teen driving and roadway safety today.
One is to let police pull over a driver for not wearing a seat belt, making it a primary offense rather than a secondary offense.
Under state law, police cannot issue fines to seat belt violators unless the driver _ teen or adult _ commits some other offense first. Crider said state police’ hands are tied since they often have to watch teenagers drive down the road not wearing seat belts, he said. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures, in 2008, 41 percent of young drivers killed in vehicular crashes were not using seat belts.
Stone said the current law is weak. “We don’t even count secondary enforcement laws,” she said. “That’s how weak it is.”
Pennsylvania is one of 21 states that does not have an optimum primary enforcement seat belt law, according to a report issued this year by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Studies also show that making seat belt use a primary offense could increase seat belt usage by 10 to 15 percent for teens and adults.
Another step is to restrict the number of passengers teen drivers can have in their vehicle.
There is no restriction under state law, which states there can be any number of passengers if there is an equal number of seat belts available in a vehicle driven by a person under 18. Forty-one states and Washington, D.C., have such laws, according to figures provided by AAA.
“The level of distraction increases with every teen passenger that you have in the car,” said Ted Leonard, executive director of the Pennsylvania AAA Federation.
A 16-year-old driver is 39 percent more likely to die in a crash with one passenger, 86 percent more likely with two passengers, and 182 percent more likely with three passengers, according to AAA figures.
Banning electronic hand-held devices, mainly cell phones for teen drivers and their passengers, is another aspect.
Teenage and adult drivers have no limitations under Pennsylvania state law. But at least 14 other states and Washington, D.C., have a cell phone restriction law of some sort. “So obviously problematic,” said Stone, adding that text-messaging in particular takes the eyes off the road, hands off the wheel, and severely reduces concentration.
A Virginian Tech Transportation Institute study also determined that drivers are 23 times more at risk of crashing their vehicles while engaging in text-messaging. Numerous studies have likened the effect of cell phone use while driving to drunken driving.
In Pennsylvania, there were 1,055 reported accidents in 2008 when an electronic hand-held device was being used by the driver, according to PennDOT figures. Crider said state police would support a law allowing them to cite all drivers using electronic hand-held devices since it would decrease the likelihood of accidents and curtail distracted teen driving that can lead to fatal collisions.
Because of a lack of laws in these areas for teen drivers, among others, Pennsylvania is one of nine states that rank at the bottom compared to teenage driving laws on the books in other states, according to the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety study.
“These are laws that are really basic,” Stone said. “The fact is these laws save lives. It’s really a major public health crisis.”
Leonard said 96 percent of the state’s AAA members support teen passenger restrictions, primary seat belt enforcement and a ban on teen drivers using electronic hand-held devices.
Critics, however, contend that a law can only go so far in changing behavior, that distractions are inevitable regardless of what legislation may be in place and that parental guidance is just as important.
“I was young at one time myself,” Crider said. “You definitely don’t see a tragic end of life that is going to suddenly happen at that age.”
Legislation has its limits and can pose other problems as well. Critics of teen passenger restrictions note that in rural areas, such as Wayne County, it would impose problems for teens needing to ride with other teen drivers to school and sporting events, for example.
State legislation aimed at voids in teenage driving laws passed the House in November. But it was amended by the Senate in May — and remains stalled. A battle wages on over it.
The House earlier this summer rejected the Senate amendment in particular for watering down an effort to hone in on teens driving while using cell phones. The move places an indefinite hold on the bill until perhaps the Legislature returns to its regular session in September.
But there is no guarantee it will pass then.
The original House bill included measures for drivers under 18 that would prohibit them from using an electronic hand-held device while driving, making it a primary offense; restrict the number of passengers in a vehicle, not including family; and make not using seat belts a primary offense.
These are all provisions advocates say the state needs today to improve teen and adult safety on the road.
The bill’s primary sponsor, state Rep. Joseph Markosek of Allegheny County, said he was disappointed the Senate amended the bill to make electronic hand-held device usage by teenage drivers a secondary offense.
“They (the Senate) severely weakened the bill during the prom and graduation season, which is often a time when the most horrific tragedies occur,” Markosek said.
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Township, who along with 33 other senators voted to amend the cell phone provision but agreed with the other proposed teen driving laws, said she voted to amend the bill because police could needlessly pull over a younger-looking adult driver using a cell phone.
The bill would at least give state police the authority to issue a fine to a teen driver using a cell phone, if pulled over for another offense.
Baker said the amended bill, however, still includes the passenger restriction and seat belt as a primary offense provisions that are indeed improvements in the state’s driving laws.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski of Wilkes-Barre, who joined his House colleagues in rejecting the Senate amendment, said in a statement that teen driving while using a cell phone needs to be a primary offense for the law to be truly effective.
“The main purpose of this bill was to saves lives and adequately prepare our young drivers with the skills and knowledge related to the safe operation of a machine that (weighs) thousands of pounds and can travel at dangerous speeds,” said Pashinski.
The bill will now go before a conference committee of members of both legislative bodies where it could be reconciled for passage.
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