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Published June 03 2012

Study: Tougher laws could cut ND teen driving deaths in half

FARGO – Stricter controls on when and how teens can start driving could cut the number of fatal crashes among young North Dakota drivers in half, according to a new report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The institute released an online calculator last week that projects changes in collisions and fatal crashes based on potential tweaks to state licensing laws.

Raising the permitting age in North Dakota from 14 to 15, for example, would produce a 13 percent drop in fatal crashes involving 15- to 17-year-old drivers, according to the calculator. Barring drivers that age from driving with other teens in the car would reduce fatal crashes by 21 percent.

Overall, if the state reformed its licensing laws to reflect the most stringent practices nationwide – including a minimum licensing age of 17 – it could cut fatal crashes among beginning teen drivers by 56 percent, the institute says.

The figures come from an analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation data.

“It is literally a matter of life and death,” said Russ Rader, an IIHS spokesman.

He said changes like raising the permitting and licensing age make a big difference, but aren’t always politically palatable, particularly in states with big rural populations.

The calculator, he said, is meant to highlight other ways states can cut accidents and deaths.

Teenagers are more likely to be involved in crashes here than drivers in any other age group, according to data from the North Dakota Department of Transportation. Thirteen teenage drivers died in crashes in 2010, the most recent year for which the agency has issued a crash summary.

Ed Gruchalla, a Fargo state representative and advocate for tougher licensing laws, said the state made some improvements in the licensing bill passed in the last legislative session, which lengthened the time required to hold a learner’s permit and curbed teen driving at night.

But he said he’d still like to limit teens’ ability to carry other teenage passengers – a provision that was stripped from the last bill.

He’d also like to raise the licensing age, but echoed Rader’s acknowledgement that such a proposal might not get far.

“Farmers think they need these young drivers,” said Gruchalla, a former Highway Patrol trooper. “The young drivers in the rural areas are the ones that are getting killed.”

Gruchalla has twice proposed legislation that would let police pull drivers over for not wearing a seatbelt – a factor in more than half of fatal crashes. Currently, police may only cite seatbelt violators if they’re stopped for another violation.

Neither bill passed.

“Part of it is a ‘don’t tell me what to do’ mentality that we have here,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502