Major traffic crashes involving teenage drivers have fallen 27 percent — an average of 118 accidents annually — in the four and a half years since the state implemented a graduated licensing program for young drivers, according to the state Department of Health.
The Health Department’s EMS and Injury Prevention System Branch also reported that teen fatalities across the state fell from 15 in the two years before the program started to just six in the two years that followed.
"The statistics are very compelling," said Carol McNamee, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Hawaii. "Lives have been saved, and accidents decreased."
The numbers were released to the Legislature earlier this year as part of a review of a pilot program for teenage drivers started in 2006, which increased the minimum driving age and put a number of new restrictions on teens behind the wheel. The numbers were enough to persuade lawmakers to write the bill permanently into law just as the original bill approached its sunset date.
"I supported a graduated licensing program from the beginning and I voted to make it permanent," said Rep. Joe Souki, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "It seems to be working very well, and the young people aren’t really complaining."
Modeled on programs already in place on the mainland, the graduated licensing system drastically changed the way teenage drivers qualify for and make use of their licenses. The measure increased the minimum driving age to 16 from 15 and required that all teenage drivers hold a learner’s permit for at least six months before qualifying to take a road test. Drivers under the age of 18 have also been required to take driver’s education courses and behind-the-wheel training, either through the public schools or a private instructor.
Once the students pass their road test, they trade their learner’s permit for a provisional driver’s license, which lasts until the drivers turn 18. With their provisional licenses, teenagers are prohibited from driving between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. without a parent or guardian in the car unless they can prove they are driving to or from a job. They are also restricted from carrying more than one minor in their car who is not a member of their household.
There was some concern among teenagers, parents and lawmakers in 2005 that the graduated licensing system would place a heavy burden on island families. With limited seats in subsidized public school driving courses and high tuition costs for private lessons, many teenagers were being forced to wait until their 18th birthdays to test for their licenses, inconveniencing time-strapped families forced to shuttle around their teens.
"We have so many limitations," said Brandon Baraoidan, a 17-year-old Heald College student who tested for his license at the Kalihi-Kapalama Satellite City Hall on June 18. "But in a way, it’s good because there are bad drivers out there."
Despite any inconvenience associated with graduated licenses, McNamee said the measure has made young drivers more conscientious behind the wheel.
"We were seeing so many crashes among young people, many of them just teens taking too much risk," she said. The graduated licensing program "has made young people and their parents think a little bit more about the seriousness of getting a license."
Teen driver fatalities have fallen since the graduated licensing program went into effect:
2003 – 2005
» 16-year-old drivers: 5
» 17-year-old drivers: 10
2006 – 2008
» 16-year-old drivers: 2
» 17-year-old drivers: 4
16-YEAR-OLD DRIVERS HAVE A …
» 40% higher risk of getting into a major accident than 17-year-olds
» 200% higher risk of getting into a major accident than 20-year-olds
» 600% higher risk of getting into a major accident than 30-year-olds
TEENS AT RISK
» Teens account for 3.4% of licensed drivers
» Teens account for 10% of all drivers involved in crashes
According to numbers from the Department of Health, teenage drivers are at the greatest risk of getting into major traffic accidents. In Hawaii, 16- and 17-year-old drivers compose just 3.6 percent of drivers, but represent 10 percent of drivers involved in serious crashes.
In addition to a decrease in serious accidents involving young drivers, the graduated licensing program has drastically cut down the number of teens behind the wheel. The Department of Health said that the number of 16-year-olds with driver’s licenses fell by 18 percent — to roughly 2,400 from 2,900 — since the program went into effect.
Despite its apparent success in limiting the number of teen drivers and crashes on Hawaii’s roadways, the graduated licensing system has not been easy to enforce.
According to McNamee, graduated license violations are generally issued as secondary offenses when police officers pull teen drivers over for other traffic offenses. Since police officers have difficulty assessing a driver’s age while they are driving, she said she suspects that a number of teens are ignoring their license requirements and hoping that they do not get caught.
"We knew it would be difficult to enforce the law when the bill passed," McNamee said.
Enforcement has differed greatly from island to island, with Oahu taking the lead for the most citations. Since 2006, law enforcement officials on Oahu have issued a total of 209 citations to teenagers driving with more than one minor in their vehicles and 419 citations for teens driving late at night, according to numbers from the Hawaii State Judiciary.
On the Big Island, there were just 11 citations issued to teens driving with more than one minor in the car and 32 citations for teens caught driving after 11 p.m. In the same period, Maui County issued just one citation combined for late-night driving and no citations to teens transporting more than one minor. Kauai County issued no tickets in either category.
Although accidents involving teen drivers have fallen significantly since the law went into effect, graduated licensing has not prevented fatal teen traffic accidents from happening. In the first five months of 2010, there were three major accidents in which paramedics were called to treat teenage drivers who were driving past their 11 p.m. curfew, according to the Department of Health. Paramedics also responded to 29 daytime crashes involving teen drivers between January and May of this year.
In her continued fight to keep island teenagers safe behind the wheel, McNamee urges parents and families to make sure their teenagers are driving safely and abiding by the provisional license restrictions.
"Families are the real supporters and enforcers of the law," she says.
Four and a half years in, teenagers and their families seem to be adjusting to the graduated licensing system and the responsibilities that come with it.
"I think (the program) really has teen safety in mind," said Ramona Sarkissian, the mother of 17-year-old Alana Grimble, who was also testing for her license. "I don’t think it’s an imposition; I think it’s a necessity as a parent."
Even with the added restrictions, teens like Baraoidan are just excited to take to the road.
"The first thing I’m going to do?" he said. "I’m going to pick up my friends and make a mall run."