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Steep drop in teen driver fatalities

Officials trace three-year trend to tougher penalties, education

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / April 18, 2010

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The number of fatal accidents involving drivers under 18 has dropped 75 percent in the three years since Massachusetts made it tougher for teenagers to earn their licenses and implemented much harsher penalties for those junior operators who speed or commit other violations.

The number of speeding tickets issued each year to newly minted teen drivers has also dropped substantially since the tougher laws were enacted, falling by nearly 60 percent, and the number cited for seat-belt violations, passenger restrictions, and other offenses has fallen at a similar rate, according to statistics from the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

And the picture continues to improve: Five out of the last six months ended without a fatal accident involving a driver under 18.

State officials credit the trend to laws that passed in 2006, after a series of highly publicized fatalities involving junior operators, which is the term the state uses to describe licensed drivers younger than 18. The laws, which took effect March 31, 2007, bolstered driver’s ed requirements and significantly increased the penalties for violations by 16- and 17-year-old drivers.

For example, a first-time speeder who once would only have been punished with a fine now also loses his or her license for 90 days. After the suspension, that teen must pay a $500 reinstatement fee, attend a pair of four-hour training classes, and retake the state’s driver exam to regain a license.

Word of those penalties — and stories of friends and classmates who have lost licenses — has reverberated through high school corridors, bounced among cellphones, and spread through social networks, said state Registrar Rachel Kaprielian.

“This clearly has had its desired effect,’’ said Kaprielian, who has led the RMV since 2008, and who was a state representative when the laws passed.

For years, Massachusetts averaged two or more fatal crashes a month involving junior operators, and there were 79 over the three years leading up to the day the penalties took effect. There were 20 the next year, 15 the year after that, and six over the last year — the first full year in which all junior operators on the road had started driver’s ed after the requirements changed.

Speeding tickets issued to junior operators have followed a similar pattern, falling in each of the three years since the laws took effect. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds received 10,127 tickets in the last year under the old laws; since then, the annual tally has dropped to 7,129, then to 5,205 the following year, and finally to 4,291 speeding tickets for the 12 months covering March 31, 2009, through March 30, 2010.

Reported accidents of all kinds — from minor dings to fatal crashes — among junior operators as well as 18-year-old drivers have diminished steadily as well: 21,310 in calendar year 2006; 20,129 in 2007; 17,238 in 2008; and 13,214 last year.

Parents and teens have had mixed reactions to the law. Kaprielian recounted the case of one father who accompanied his daughter while she paid the $500 from her savings for post-suspension reinstatement and personally thanked the RMV for teaching her a lesson.

For high school students, few punishments sting like the loss of a license. Scott McCabe, a Bridgewater 17-year-old, had been driving for eight months when he got his first ticket, for speeding on Interstate 495 in December. Then he got a letter from the RMV, suspending his license.

In an instant, McCabe — who aspires to a career designing race cars, and who started competing at 8 on the Junior Drag Racing circuit — was reduced to getting rides from his father, no longer able to drive himself to school or to his job with DMC Racing, a Halifax chassis shop.

“It had a huge impact,’’ said McCabe, frustrated that the law applies differently to people his age than to friends a few months older. “I think it’s not that cool.’’

Debbie Parente, a Swansea mother whose 16-year-old son, Christopher, hopes to earn his license in May, attended one of the newly required parent sessions last week, at AAA Bristol County Driving School in Fall River.

“To me, that’s the best thing they could have done, to make them know that there are consequences for their actions,’’ she said. “When they are speeding at 16 or 17, unless they have an awakening, the consequences can become tragic.’’

Governor Deval Patrick, whose daughters were in high school and college when the law took effect, said the decrease in deaths offers convincing evidence that rewriting laws can save lives.

“As governor and as a parent I am happy to see that we are creating safer streets and better driving habits among our young drivers,’’ Patrick said in a statement. “Our number one priority is protecting the safety of the traveling public, and our successful implementation of the Junior Operator License Law is clearly reducing teen driver crashes and saving lives.’’

It is difficult to determine precisely how much of the safety gains stemmed from the laws and how much came from other factors. National statistics on fatal crashes and other accident measures have also improved in recent years.

“It’s a multitude of factors: Strong laws, education, public awareness, and the economy,’’ said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices. “When people drive less, they die less.’’

But the statistics in Massachusetts suggest the state’s teen-driving safety gains outpace the nation and derive considerably from the legislation.

State Senator Steven A. Baddour, who pushed for the changes as chairman of the Transportation Committee, said legislators had sought to pass a package that would both better educate teens before letting them drive and more severely punish those who commit even a first violation.

“We intentionally made the penalties aggressive because we wanted to send a message to young drivers that when they get behind the wheel, their priority should be getting from point A to point B safely,’’ said Baddour, a Methuen Democrat.

“We got a lot of negative feedback, quite frankly, from a lot of different people that it was too aggressive, that we went too far,’’ Baddour added. “But I think it is a model for the rest of the country.’’

The package brought several changes, with the most prominent being the suspension and penalties for a first speeding ticket. Drivers under 18 also incur license suspensions from 60 days to a year for first offenses for violating restrictions on driving with non-sibling teenagers; driving during prohibited late-night and early morning hours; driving recklessly, negligently, or to endanger; and drag racing.

The legislation also doubled the behind-the-wheel component of formal driver’s ed instruction from six to 12 hours; increased the supervised driving time that teens with permits must engage in with parents or guardians before seeking a license from 12 to 40 hours; and added a two-hour parent class to driver’s ed.

For violators, there are now mandated courses held around the state for teens seeking to reapply for their licenses. At a State Courts Against Road Rage class last week in Fall River, six students, including McCabe, spent four hours in a hotel meeting room discussing responsibility and decision-making, telling their stories, and watching videotapes about accidents involving teenagers that left people dead, paralyzed, or brain damaged.

“Up until now, today, you’ve been irresponsible,’’ said instructor Michael DeLima, a moonlighting sheriff’s deputy. “It is up to you from here on to correct yourself.’’

At the end, he went around the room shaking each hand, and saying that he hoped if he saw them again it was because they had become instructors, not repeat students or casualties. Then they filed into the elevator and went downstairs, would-be junior operators waiting for a ride.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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