A study by the Automobile Association of America's Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that while 'graduated licensing' laws, such as Pennsylvania's 'Lacey's Law', are effective in helping reduce teen driving deaths, enforcement is still key and parents are a critical part of the equation.

Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, states that a young driver with other teens in the vehicle can become as distracted as cell phone users who get behind the wheel. A new AAA study, which examined teen crashes from 2007 to 2010, backs him up. The risk of death for a driver 16 or 17 increases 44 percent when there's one passenger younger than 21, and no older passengers aboard.

The danger level increases as more young passengers are included in the vehicle, doubling when there are two passengers younger than 21, and quadrupling when there are three or more riders that age.

Graduated licensing laws, seat belt use, better safety equipment in cars, and anti-drunk-driving campaigns by the states have made a difference. Each year during the decade of 2000-2010, the number of 16- and 17-year-old drivers involved in fatal crashes fell by more than half. Forty percent of the 2,191 younger teen drivers killed during those years had at least one passenger under 21 and no older passengers in the vehicle.

It's too early to have statistics on the impact of Pennsylvania's new teen driving law which went into effect just last December. Under the measure, during the first six months after getting a license, a teen can only have one person under the age 18 in the vehicle with them. This does not include immediate family members. After the first six months, teens can have up to three passengers under 18.

Pennsylvania teens must also complete 65 hours of behind the wheel training. The previous requirement was 50 hours.

State teens can be pulled over and possibly fined if a passenger under 18 is found without a seat belt.

The AAA released its study Tuesday to coincide with a rally in Washington to kick off Global Youth Traffic Safety Month. End-of-year school activities, including graduation parties, will mean an increase in travel volume of teen drivers and their passengers. Statistics show that an average of 422 teens die monthly in traffic crashes during summer compared to an average of 363 teen deaths during non-summer months.

Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association is correct in pointing out that while statewide graduated licensing laws are important and have been effective, officials still rely on the parents to be the ones enforcing them.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com