Graduated licensing makes driving safer for Kansas teens

The number of accidents involving teenage Kansas drivers has dropped sharply over the past few years, and safety experts say the graduated driver’s license law that took effect Jan. 1, 2010, has played a major role in the trend.

“I think that’s exactly the outcome we expected,” said Suzanne Wikle, director of policy and research for Kansas Action for Children, a nonprofit group that pushed for the law. She said other states have seen similar results after enacting similar laws.

AAA Kansas spokesman Jim Hanni said the law, combined with a growing use of seat belts among teen drivers, has had a major impact on teenage accident statistics.

“We’ve definitely made some wonderful strides in a very short period of time,” he said.

Kansas Department of Transportation records show that the number of accidents involving drivers 14 through 16 dropped from more than 5,000 in 2004 and 2005 to fewer than 3,000 in 2011. The number of fatalities involving drivers in that age group averaged 22 a year from 2004 through 2009. Fifteen were recorded in 2010 and only nine in 2011.

Pete Bodyk, traffic safety chief for KDOT, said the number of accidents involving young drivers was steadily declining even before the graduated licensing law took effect. He attributed the drop to other laws the Kansas Legislature has passed over the years, such as a 2007 law that required 14- to 17-year-olds to wear seat belts.

“They’ve been doing a lot of different things trying to address teen issues,” he said.

Bodyk said KDOT conducted a comprehensive review of teenage accidents before the graduated license law was passed. He said he expects KDOT to conduct a follow-up survey next year to determine how effective the law has been.

The graduated license law carries two major provisions, both of which are designed to increase the amount of supervision a teenager receives before receiving an unrestricted driver’s license. The law:

• Requires all teen drivers to hold a learner’s permit for 12 months before obtaining a restricted or unrestricted driver’s license. Restricted licenses allows unsupervised driving to and from work or school.

• Once a 16-year-old has obtained a full license, he or she is prohibited during the first six months of driving from using cellphones, from having more than one non-sibling minor passenger, and from driving after 9 p.m. except to and from work or school.

Hanni said the law has been effective because of the amount of adult supervision built into it.

“Age is a factor; there’s no question about that,” he said. “But of the two — age and inexperience — inexperience is the greatest factor” in predicting which young drivers will have accidents.

David Clark, who has taught driver’s education for 20 years, agreed that the extra practice time is turning teen drivers into safer drivers.

“The addition of more experience with parents, I think, is having an obvious impact,” he said. “Experience is the best teacher, and I think kids are getting more experience with their parents.”

Hanni said the one other important factor in teen driving safety is the increasing use of seat belts.

The increase is being spurred in part by a relatively new program called SAFE (Seatbelts Are For Everyone). The program started in Crawford County in 2008 and has since spread to 37 other Kansas counties.

David Corp, a retired Kansas Highway Patrol trooper who is now a law enforcement liaison for KDOT, helped launch the program.

At participating schools, he said, students are asked to sign cards pledging to always wear seat belts. Seat belt surveys are done at the beginning and end of the school year, he said.

Participating students are eligible for monthly $25 gift card drawings. Grand prizes are awarded to the schools with the highest compliance rate and the biggest increase in seat belt usage.

Corp said compliance rates at participating schools have risen, on average, from 73.7 percent to 82 percent.

From a purely traffic-safety standpoint, Bodyk said, Kansas could probably make teenage drivers even safer by prohibiting them from driving before the age of 16. Some East Coast states have such a restriction.

But such a restriction probably doesn’t make sense in a largely agricultural state such as Kansas, he said. He said the graduated license law is as good as any other teenage driving law in the country.

“We do have pretty good one, all in all,” he said. “We’re pretty happy with what we’ve got.”

Teenage drivers in Kansas

The number of accidents, injuries and fatalities involving Kansas drivers ages 14 to 16 has dropped sharply in recent years.

Ages 14-16 Accidents Fatalities Injuries Vehicles
2004 5,687 23 2,449 10,141
2005 5,150 28 2,190 9,156
2006 4,920 26 2,155 8,746
2007 4,510 19 1,904 7,991
2008 4,227 16 1,673 7,540
2009 3,625 18 1,485 6,393
2010 3,253 15 1,297 5,753
2011 2,904 9 1,111 5,114