Distracted teen drivers raise alarms

Teen drivers account for an inordinate number of fatal crashes involving distractions, according to a national report.

However, there are signs of progress in Louisiana, and recent state laws have enough teeth to make a difference, said Lt. Col. John LeBlanc, executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission.

The study, titled “Distracted & Dangerous,” was done by the Governors Highway Safety Association with a grant from State Farm Insurance Co.

The review said that, between 2003 and 2012, driver deaths for ages 15-20 dropped by 49 percent.

However, motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for that age group.

Those teens also comprise 6 percent of the nation’s licensed drivers but accounted for 9 percent of all drivers involved in fatal crashes n 2012.

In addition, 13 percent of all drivers involved in accidents reported to the police were teens.

“National Highway Safety Administration data confirm that teens and distraction don’t mix,” according to the report.

“In 2012, 15- to 19-year-olds accounted for the largest proportion — 10 percent — of drivers who were distracted at the time of a fatal crash,” the report says.

And the distractions that usually come to mind for young drivers are cellphones and texting.

LeBlanc said the findings reaffirm long-held views about teen motorists.

“The crash rates are notoriously high, higher than that of older drivers,” he said.

“Drivers between 16 and 19 are about three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash. What makes those statistics even more painful is most of the crashes are preventable.”

LeBlanc said that, in 2012, the state recorded 7,166 crashes involving teens between the ages of 13 and 19 where distraction was checked off on the accident report.

That dropped to 6,956 crashes in 2013.

However, all those numbers are self reported.

“We have a lot of room for improvement,” LeBlanc said.

Drivers in Louisiana, like most states, are banned from text messaging while driving, and it is a primary offense.

That means motorists can be stopped for that violation alone.

First-time violators face fines of $175 and up to $500 for additional offenses.

Louisiana also has a graduated driver’s license law, which means drivers earn privileges according to their age.

Teens can get a learner’s permit at age 15, an intermediate driver’s license at 16 and an unrestricted license at 17.

Under state law, those with an intermediate driver’s license can carry one passenger younger than 21 between 6 p.m. and 5 a.m.

The report said 15 states and the District of Columbia ban all passengers for those beginner drivers.

“The recommendation is supported by research that found a 21 percent reduction in the fatal crash rate of 15- to 17-year-olds when novice drivers were prohibited from driving with any teens versus two or more,” the report says.

“Additionally, allowing just one teen passenger is associated with a seven percent reduction in crash risk,” it says.

LeBlanc said that, in the Legislature, groups regularly push for tougher restrictions on driver’s license rules.

While studies shows passengers are a distraction for young drivers, he said, “you would have to hear both sides of that debate.

“We are not doing bad on our GDL law at all.”

LeBlanc’s organization is supposed to provide information to the Legislature and others rather than initiating changes in state law.

Other groups have said Louisiana needs to toughen some of its driver’s license rules.

Earlier this year, an organization that represents consumer, health and insurance interests — Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety — recommended that drivers be at least 16 years old to get a learner’s permit and 18 for an unrestricted license.

Legislation to raise the age to 18 for an unrestricted driver’s license in Louisiana died in 2010.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.