Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


A Little Temporary Safety

So I saw this ad on the back of the Economist. (Click for a larger PDF). In reading it, I noticed this exhortation to “support the STANDUP act of 2009:”

The STANDUP Act* (H.R. 1895) creates a National
Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) law that [limits nighttime driving, reduces in-car distractions, puts a cap on the number of friends in the car and increases the required hours of training and supervision. ] congressional representatives When states have implemented comprehensive GDL programs, the number of fatal crashes among 16 year old drivers has fallen by almost 40%.”

Now I was curious as to how many lives that was, and so I went looking. I found a lot of interesting stuff. For example, “Beginning with Florida in 1996, graduated licensing systems also have been adopted in most U.S. states.” That’s from the “Insurance Institute for Highway Safety/Highway Loss Data Institute.” But they also tell us: “A national evaluation reported that states with 3-stage graduated systems had 11 percent fewer fatal crashes per population of 16 year-olds during 1994-2004 than states without such systems.” Last I checked, 11 is not almost 40.

It also turns out that the number of teens killed in New Jersey last year was 60. Now, I don’t want to minimize the pain for the families who lost their children, or those injured by teens driving like, well, teens. But based on Allstate’s high number, these laws about graduated driving privileges may save as many as 25 lives a year. Based on the IIHS assessment, it may be 6 or 7.

Now there’s an old saw “Where are you from? New Jersey. Oh, what exit?” The truth is that life in New Jersey is car-centric, and saving those lives involves restricting the behavior of about 110,000 teens. (Or so I estimate, based on New Jersey Quickfacts from the US Census, who say that there are 8.6MM people, and roughly 24% are under 18, and so I figure that roughly 1.3% of the population is 16.) Those teens are in the process of exploring who they are, and asserting their independence from their parents and geography. They’re in the process of growing up. Part of that growing up is taking risks, and I suspect that some of the risk taking is simply delayed, not removed.

The other thing I don’t get about Allstate’s ad is that the insurance industry says “most states” already have such laws. Setting a national law is hard, and Congress is busy investigating baseball players. So clearly, they have important tasks to be working on. What’s more, phrases like “A national evaluation reported that states with 3-stage graduated systems had 11 percent fewer fatal crashes … than states without such systems.” A stronger argument for continued experimentation by laboratories of democracy is hard to imagine.

But stepping back, the real issue I have here is the desire to drive one particular danger to zero without consideration of the costs or alternatives. These folks are dedicated to stopping deaths in cars (which is appropriate for the IIHS, less so for Allstate). But what fraction of teen deaths are in cars that a teen is driving? What are the costs of a little temporary safety for teens?

[updates: corrected quote, added link to text]
[update2: Don’t miss Kenneth Finnegan’s comment about having 5 teens all drive separately from point A to point B, with attendant environmental and parking impact.]

15 comments on "A Little Temporary Safety"

  • David Brodbeck says:

    I often have the same complaint about anti-drunk-driving groups like MADD. Yes, drunk driving is a horrible thing to do, and everything they’ve done to toughen penalties and increase the stigma of driving drunk is praise-worthy. I think they’ve gone off the rails a bit with their advocacy for police checkpoints and mandatory breathalyzers in all cars, though. The tradeoffs just don’t seem reasonable to me.

  • Nick says:

    I think this sort of control should be kept with the states. No need for federal involvement.

  • Nicko says:

    A couple of things spring to mind regarding this. Firstly, if these programs are restricting the driving of teens in order to deliver a reduction in fatalities then an interesting metric would be to know if there was any reduction in the deaths per mile travelled. Are 16-year-olds dying less for any reason other than that they are driving less? If not, why not just raise the driving age to 18 and be done with it? Secondly, what is the impact to the economy of restricting this driving? Teens in the US provide cheap weekend labour in jobs like selling popcorn at the movie theatre and mowing people’s lawns. As Adam mentions, New Jersey is a car-dependent state; does restricting their movement change the labour supply in a measurable way? If it does then is it really worth it to statistically save six or seven lives?

  • I started driving in California right at the end of 2005 when they kicked the probational period from 6 months out to a year. Now imagine you’ve got 4-5 teenagers hanging out and we wanted to go somewhere else. The logical thing to do would be to all jump in one car, and drive there, but since none of us were over 25 (which was the required supervision age), we all took individual cars. That’s 5 cars, 4 of which needlessly driving across town, every week. It felt pretty ridiculous.

  • Scott says:

    While it’s true that Allstate picked the data that presents their argument most favorably, you did the same thing by presenting the least compelling data from the precis offered at IIHS.
    Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics.

  • beri says:

    I have heard that the death rate among teen drivers goes down as they age. So each year that you delay them from driving saves lives. And driving is a priviledge not a right. They will live if they have to wait another year to drive (pun intended). Interestingly, in Massachusetts, we are having a similar debate at the other end of the age spectrum, about drivers over the age of 75, who have caused a number of deaths lately by running over children or driving their cars into stores.

  • Adam says:

    Actually, I picked the data that most closely matched the description that Allstate used. The other numbers given were not specific to 16 year olds (who do have the most crashes. It’s not clear how much of that is their 16-ness and how much of that is their new-to-driving-ness).

  • Dan Weber says:

    I was looking up stuff on this just a week or two ago, so concepts are fresh in my head, if not references. :/
    Teens mostly kill people besides themselves. And there is a big correlation between driving age and accidents, much bigger than the correlation between experience and accidents.
    We could raise the driving age to 18, but there are certain situations in which teenagers are pretty good, and some in which they are much worse, like driving at night or with two other teenagers (and no adults) in the car. Teenagers’ brains are still forming, and they make crappy decisions and peer pressure increases their risk taking. That’s not that bad when you are hunting on the Savannah and trying to prove you can kill the sabretooth tiger. It’s a different story when you are piloting a one-ton machine at 50 mph.
    I agree that this shouldn’t be done nationally. Let the states do it. I am going to restrict my own kids even if my state doesn’t, but the state does have an active interest in stopping teenagers from ramming into other people.

  • The Dave says:

    To me, what we really need to do is look at whether it’s age-specific, or simply new drivers that have substantially higher risk.
    My gut (which is a horrible way to judge risk, I admit) tells me that a 28 year old who has only driven for 3-6 months is just as likely to have an accident as a 16 year old.
    If my prediction is correct then increasing the driving age does nothing of value, and it’s likely that lowering the age at which one can get a learner’s license and increasing the length of time one must have a learner’s license along with better testing before a full drivers’ license can be issued would be far more productive.
    Even better, although practically impossible to enforce in the real world, would be to build a system similar to that of pilots, where one would be required to have a certain number of hours behind the wheel as a learner before issuing a drivers’ license.

  • Dan Weber says:

    The Dave, age really is a much bigger factor than experience. Insurance companies aren’t perfect, of course, but even though they gather data on how long you have had a license, they give much more weight to age.
    Here’s just one I found, although in Australia they also deal with US data: Section 7.0 explicitly deals with “young” as opposed to “novice” drivers.
    One thing is that teenagers make lots of stupid decisions before they get behind the wheel, like drinking. They also vastly overestimate their skill behind the wheel.

  • Dan Weber says:

    The Dave, the comment system is eating my posts with URLs, but if you can find the State Farm 1988 report, among others, it’s pretty clear that teenagers are very bad drivers compared to other novices. Part of it is that teenagers make stupid decisions before they get behind the wheel, like drinking. Another part is that they vastly overestimate their skills.

  • Adam says:

    Dan, Sorry about that–the blog is set to allow one URL; apparently it counts the one you put into the “post a comment” section.

  • beri says:

    Go to (online Boston Globe) and see article today on “teens with own cars have more crashes.” Has some data relating to teens, deaths etc.

  • beri says:

    Go to (online Boston Globe) and see article today on “teens with own cars have more crashes.” Has some data relating to teens, deaths etc.

  • Lizzie Pucci says:

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