Iowa teen driving safety sparks concern


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A single passenger or distraction may be one too many for Iowa teen drivers.

Iowa vehicle-safety officials said Iowa is significantly behind in teen driver safety. Officials said there should be more reforms addressing such issues as passenger restrictions, driving time frames, and when teenagers can begin driving.

"Under Gov. [Terry] Brandstad's first administration, we were way ahead of the rest of the country with the Graduated Drivers Licensing systems," said Daniel McGehee, the University of Iowa director of human factors and vehicle safety research. "Now, it has expanded in many other states, but not so much in Iowa."

In 2011, Iowa saw 12 fatalities among 16 and 17 year-old-drivers and 7 in 2010 — a 71 percent increase, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation. Johnson County had no fatalities in 2010 and one in 2011.

Kim Snook, the director of the office of driver services for the Iowa Department of Transportation, is concerned about the increase. The state is continually looking for ways to improve teens' safety and Iowa is not considered a proactive drivers license state, she said.

U.S. News & World Report ranked Iowa as 49th for overall teen driving safety conditions in 2010.

Kara Macek, the communications manager for the Governor's Highway Safety Association, said the increase in fatalities from 2010 to 2011 could be from the economy or the Graduated Driver's License benefits leveling off, but this is only speculation.

"When the economy improves, teens have more disposable income, more time to be out driving around, more teens on roads an increase in exposure to risk," Macek said.

McGehee said as the number of passengers a teen driver has increases, the risk for accidents grow almost exponentially. Distractions and experience also play a role in the risks of teen drivers.

"When you insert text messages coming in continuously, especially after school, there is a tendency for young drivers — no matter what is happening — to respond," McGehee said. "It's also a development of skill. When you take a look at how much young drivers get behind the wheel, it is really not that much. They also have overconfidence in their skills."

Iowa currently has a Graduated License System that allows teen drivers to receive an instruction permit at age 14, an intermediate license at 16, and a full license at 17.

Teens are required to hold an instruction permit for six months and drive with a guardian before obtaining their intermediate license. The intermediate license allows them to drive alone between the hours of 5 a.m. and 12:30 a.m. and must be accident free before earning their full license, which has no restrictions.

"We are working on things like advertisement to bring more awareness and education to the state, changes in the hours teens can drive, driving longer with an instruction permit —12 months — and having no passengers at all except for family members," Snook said.

State officials have been forced to pull drivers' education programs from schools because of lack of funding, McGehee said. Many communities now offer the program through private organizations.

This can affect the quality of programs — another contributing factor to teen fatalities, he said.

And though legislation has been presented to combat the problems on the road, some say there needs to more.

Iowa banned all cell-phone use for drivers under the age of 18 and texting for all drivers in 2010.

In 2011, the state Legislature's transportation subcommittee reviewed a bill that would mandate teen drivers hold their permit for 12 months instead of six months before obtaining their intermediate license. The last action made on the bill was almost a year ago.

"We're at the point now that if we do anything differently, it will require legislation," Snook said.

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