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Could tougher graduated driver's licensing laws save more lives?

If the thought of putting your teen behind the wheel of a car is keeping you up at night, there’s a good reason for that. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers.

But a study released in November 2011 by the National Institutes of Health found that the rate of fatal car crashes involving teens actually has dropped by 8 percent to 14 percent in the past few years. Why? Since 1996, every state in the country has adopted a graduated driver’s licensing (GDL) program designed to make it tougher for teens to get behind the wheel.

Laying down the law

GDL programs vary by state, but the most successful ones delay the age for a teen to get a driver’s permit and require 50 to 100 hours of supervised driving practice. Once a teen earns an intermediate license, usually between age 16 and 17, GDL laws typically limit the number of passengers they’re allowed to have and restrict their nighttime driving. Plus, the laws usually postpone the age for teens to earn a full license, often to age 18.

graduated drivers license

According to the Allstate Foundation's "License to Save" report, if all states enacted "comprehensive" GDL laws, that could save 2,000 lives and $13 billion a year -- almost a third of the $38.3 billion in lost wages, medical expenses, insurance expenses and damages caused by teen car crashes. Included in the report's definition of "comprehensive" are:

• Setting a minimum permit age of 16.

• Requiring at least six months and 30 hours of supervised permit driving.

• Putting restrictions on nighttime driving and driving with more than one passenger.

• Not allowing full licensing before age 17.

To find out more about the GDL program in your state, visit the Governors Highway Safety Association website.

The proposed Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection (STAND UP) Act, which is pending in Congress, would beef up states' requirements for graduated driver's licensing programs.

Thumbs up, thumbs down

Stepped-up licensing requirements in some states haven’t earned many fans among the high school crowd.

“In my own circle, I heard major grumblings” when Washington passed its intermediate driver’s license law in 2001, says Angie Ward, program manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and the mother of two teens. “Most teenagers hated it.”

But parents, who are more likely to recognize the risks of teen driving, have been more enthusiastic.

“Surveys show that parents overwhelmingly support graduated licensing programs, even though in many cases their chauffeur duties are extended,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Will stronger laws mean lower insurance rates?

Because teens have long had the highest crash rates, they’ve also been notoriously expensive to insure as drivers. A survey released by Nationwide in 2011 regarding the expense of having a teen driver found that 66 percent of parents saw the price of insurance as a top concern. And no wonder: Seventy percent of parents insure their children on their auto insurance policies and see an average annual price bump of $800.

Now that those crash rates are dropping because of GDL laws, are insurance costs dropping, too? Not exactly, says Kate Hollcraft, a spokeswoman for Allstate.

“A driver's auto insurance rates are based on multiple factors. While GDL laws may not have an immediate impact on rates, we know that stronger laws lead to fewer crashes on our roads and highways, which ultimately will help lower insurance costs for all consumers," Hollcraft says.

How to cut teen drivers' insurance costs

For now, you can keep your auto insurance expenses manageable when your teen hits the road by following these four steps:

1. Encourage safe driving.

Every accident or moving violation your teen racks up probably will hike your insurance costs. With GDL laws, an accident or moving violation may even mean the loss of your kid’s right to drive. In Washington, for instance, if a teen has an accident or gets a ticket, a warning letter goes to his parent. With a second ticket or collision, his license is suspended for six months. After that, he loses his license altogether.

2. Find the right make and model.

Some cars are less expensive to insure -- usually the ones that are considered the safest. “Knowing that teens are more likely to crash, you want them in the most protective vehicle you can get,” says Rader, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety spokesman.

Look for good crash-test ratings, and avoid cars that encourage risk-taking, like sports cars, or cars prone to single-vehicle rollovers, like pickup trucks or older SUVs. The ideal car, Rader says, is “big, boring and low,” such as a Ford Taurus or Honda Accord.

3. Ask for discounts.

You won’t get a discount just because your state has a GDL law, but you can get a price cut if your teen's car has anti-lock brakes, air bags or an anti-theft device. Plus, your teen’s good grades show that he's responsible -- another avenue to a discount.

4. Get educated.

Some insurers, including Nationwide, offer an extra discount for teens who enroll in a driver certification program designed to teach good driving habits.

Keeping your teen driver safe

Of course, keeping your insurance rates in check isn’t your primary concern when your 16-year-old is about to get behind the wheel. You just want him to be safe. So adhere to these three tips for safe teen driving:

1. Practice.

Even though some intermediate driver’s license programs require up to 100 hours of supervised practice, Ward suspects that many parents are fudging the truth about their teen’s practice hours or they just aren’t keeping track. Obnoxious as it is, practice is a big part of turning your teen into a skilled driver.

“Taking driver’s ed doesn’t make you a better driver. But driving experience does,” Ward says.

Hit the streets early in the morning when there are fewer cars on the road, practice in a parking lot, or try a neighborhood under construction, which offers good roads but few other motorists.

2. Enforce your own rules.

Not all GDL laws are created equal. If the laws in your state aren’t strict, make you own rules -- that your child can’t drive after 11 p.m., for instance, or can’t have passengers. Ward recommends drawing up a parent-teen contract so your kid is more committed to the rules and knows what to expect.

3. Limit availability of the car.

If a kid has his own car, he feels less of a sense of responsibility than if he's driving a parent's car. Plus, by sharing a family car, you control the keys.

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