Keep teen driver law a work in progress

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted12/28/2011 5:00 AM

Four years ago, lawmakers toughened requirements for high school students to get a driver's license. The graduated driver licensing, or GDL, program has since contributed to a dramatic drop in traffic deaths in Illinois among 16- and 17-year-olds.

Such a gain in safety is reason to be proud. Proud, perhaps, but not satisfied.


Teens continue to talk on their phones while driving. They're still texting, though even adults are barred from that now, too. And many young drivers flout the rule that limits the number of unrelated passengers. Motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for those between 15 and 20. There's work to be done.

Blame a variety of causes for the statistics, including inexperience, lack of judgment, cognitive function and, of all things, hormones. A 2006 study by the National Institutes of Health says the onset of puberty can affect teens' motivation, moods and emotions and lead to an increase in risk taking.

Simple tasks like changing the station or reaching for some fries are more dangerous for an inexperienced driver. Yet, even more intricate moves like reading a GPS or searching for an iPod playlist are increasingly common among teens behind the wheel.

And then there's the distraction of friends in the car. Teenagers are notorious back-seat drivers, and the one in the driver's seat may be influenced by commands like "speed up and you can make this light."

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Illinois' GDL law addresses many of these perils. Teen drivers cannot text or talk on any phone, including the hands-free type. They are required to be licensed for one year before they can have multiple passengers who are not relatives.

Still, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teenagers use seat belts less than any other age group, are more likely to speed and tend to keep unsafe distances between cars. They also are less likely to recognize dangerous situations than experienced drivers.

Law enforcement, the courts and policy makers have the job of monitoring teen drivers and seeking ways to ensure their safety. So, when Secretary of State Jesse White's new safe-driver panel discusses a wide range of issues beginning next month, distracted driving among teens should be one of their topics.

Equally important is the role of parents, who must set the example. It may be legal, but talking on the phone while driving is unsafe for any age. Someone else in the car can answer a call. And parents who need to reach a child who may be driving at the moment should refrain from calling. The temptation to answer a call or a text immediately is extremely compelling to teens.

Driving is a high-risk activity. Being a teen makes it more so. Illinois' GDL laws are among the nation's most comprehensive, but we cannot think the job is done.