By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
Last year, 293 teenagers were the drivers in fatal traffic accidents in Ohio.
“A big part of it is inexperience,” said Ohio Highway Patrol Lt. Fred Greive. “Teens drive a little more aggressively and put themselves in situations they can’t get out of.”
In Ohio, teenagers make up only 7 per cent of drivers but are involved as drivers in 14 per cent of all fatal crashes.
Among drivers who get into an accident, those 20 years old and younger were 51 per cent more likely to have been at fault than were drivers in their 30s and 40s, according to a 1996 Ohio study.
And nationwide, car crashes continue to be the leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds – almost twice as many as those who die of suicide, drug overdoses, and AIDS combined.
Officials and safety advocates blame the statistics on teens’ inexperience. Young drivers are less likely than ever to be trained in what, exactly, to do behind the wheel.
Driver’s education was once as big a part of teenaged lives as first dates and acne; in the 1970s, more than 90 per cent of new drivers took driver’s ed, according to the American Driver and Traffic Safety Association. Now, that number is around 35 per cent.
As a possible solution, the state legislature is considering a bill that would make it tougher for inexperienced teens to make it onto the road.
Senate Bill 35, sponsored by Sen. Bruce Johnson (R., Columbus), would make it more difficult for teens to get their licenses, which are available to anyone over 16 who can pass a driver’s test. Under the proposal, teens could get a learner’s permit at age 15 1/2, but would have to log at least 50 hours of driving with a parent or guardian and wait at least six months before applying for a license.
Even then, the license would be probationary and could be more easily revoked or suspended than an adult’s.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Lieutenant Greive said. “If a teen goes through that process, he’ll come out of it with some experience under his belt.”
The bill has been passed in different forms by the House and Senate, and is under discussion by a conference committee. A previous conference committee’s suggested version of the bill was rejected by the House on July 24.
Last month, AAA Northwest Ohio began a campaign asking citizens to write to their representatives in Columbus to call for passage of the bill.
“You just can’t learn to drive in only a couple of weeks behind the wheel,” said Martha Everhart, director of public affairs for AAA Northwest Ohio. “It’s a life and death matter.”
Michigan authorities are in part tackling the problem legislatively.
A three-tier driver’s license program started in April restricts teenage motorists and requires them to take a road test.
Sixteen-year-old drivers cannot be behind the wheel after midnight unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. At 17, teens who have not caused an accident or received a moving violation will receive an unrestricted license.
The goal is to reduce the number of accidents involving young motorists, state leaders said.
Teens at Hudson High School in Michigan hope a monument to a 17-year-old boy who died this summer in an accident will remind classmates to slow down.
The monument at the entrance of the football field will be in honor of James McDonough, who died July 8, and other students who have been killed in automobile accidents.
“It’s for Jim’s memory, but hopefully other students will see it and slow down,” said Bridget Beal, one of the teens who helped plan the memorial.
Blade staff writer Kelly Lecker contributed to this report.