Connecticut was reeling, from 49 teen-driver-related deaths in 2006 (among more than 5,000 nationally), and then seven teen fatalities in six weeks during August and October 2007. Connecticut’s governor, a grandmother herself, had had enough, and appointed a task force to overhaul our state’s teen driver law. The Connecticut task force recommended, the legislature accepted, and the governor signed (in April 2008) revisions to our teen driver law that made it one of the strictest in the nation: an earlier curfew, longer passenger restrictions, mandatory seat belts, a ban on texting, license suspensions for violations, enhanced powers for police, and a required safe teen driving class for parents. The class, a controversial proposal, demonstrated that the political mood was to risk the ire of parents in the name of safety.
The group would build on the heroic efforts of three mothers who had lost teens in crashes in the span of eleven days in 2002, but plainly there was more to be done. Governor Rell asked me to serve, because one of the 2006 fatalities, on December 2, had been my son Reid, seventeen years old, the driver in a one-car crash on an interstate highway. I had an opportunity to make sure that Reid had not died in vain.
I have learned that stricter traffic safety laws work. Nationally, annual deaths from motor vehicle crashes have declined from more than 50,000 in the 1970’s to about 35,000 in recent years. In Connecticut in 2014, that 2006 number, 49 teen-driver-related deaths, was reduced to ten, a remarkable public safety achievement. But while learning the characteristics of successful advocacy, I also became acquainted with the forces that impede stricter safe driving laws and efforts to lower crash rates and fatalities.
So where are we today? Confronted by this alarming new statistic: in 2015, more than 35,000 people died on American roads, a seven percent increase from 2014. More than four thousand of those deaths were in teen-driver-related crashes. In 2016, we are on pace for yet another increase. Decades of progress are beginning to reverse.
I now offer ten questions. These are intended to be provocative. They ask, “Why not?” and “Can’t we do better?” They are unconstrained by political reality, cultural norms, or public budgets. My aim is to provide to you readers, especially those in government and the traffic safety community, with pointed inquiries about where we are drawing the line today between freedom and safety:
- Why does the government allow the manufacture and sale of cars that can go much faster than eighty miles per hour, when it is illegal to drive faster than eighty on any road in the United States? In the October 2007 crash in Connecticut that killed four teens, the estimated speed was 140 miles per hour. The federal government can mandate safety features for automobiles, the technology to install so-called “speed governors” exists, and they can be installed and even retrofitted at little cost.
- Federal regulations ban cigarette advertising because smoking is dangerous, so why do we allow automobile advertising on television that shows illegal and unsafe driving? Ads show cars driving fast, in dangerous places, performing stunts and smashing through concrete and glass without a scratch. Would it really hurt sales to ban advertising that shows absurdly unsafe and plainly illegal driving?
- The federal Food and Drug Administration does not allow products to be sold to the American public until they have been proven safe, so why does the federal government allow installation in cars of electronic devices that have nothing to do with the safe operation of the vehicle, without making the manufacturers first prove that these devices will not distract from safe driving? Are we allowing auto manufacturers to experiment with the safety of the American public? Why is the response to date only voluntary guidelines?
- If assessment of risk and judgment about how to avoid it are not fully developed in the human brain until we reach age 22 to 25, why do states issue licenses to teens as young as 14, 15, and 16? Tradition and parent convenience are not acceptable answers.
- Because it is well-established that new teen drivers have the highest crash rates, and that parent supervision is essential to the success of teen driver laws, why don’t all states require at least one parent or supervising adult, as a condition of putting their teen on public roads, to attend a class about the elevated dangers of teen driving?
- Why do most distracted driving laws cover only cell phones and texting, but not distractions from dashboard-mounted, interactive, Internet-ready, smartphone-synched screens?
- When all of the world’s leading public health and safety organizations agree that hands-free/voice-activated use of a cell phone can be just as distracting as hand-held use (because voice-activated causes what is called “cognitive blindness”), why do so many states ban or limit hand-held use, but allow hands-free?
- Why do cell phone and distracted driving laws vary by state, when the driving technology and the risk are essentially the same everywhere? Has anyone considered the absurdity of someone driving from Maine to Florida passing through fourteen different sets of rules about cell phone use? One uniform set of rules would help drivers understand their obligations and law enforcement monitor compliance.
- Why do most distracted driving laws focus on specific devices, such as cell phones and laptops, when it is foolish for our laws to try to keep pace with ever-evolving ways that information, music, and entertainment are delivered, and a more comprehensive approach would be a rule targeting driver conduct, such as: “Except in an emergency, no driver of a vehicle not in Park shall use any electronic device, whether in hand-held, hands-free, or voice activated mode, to send or read a message, send or view a photograph or video, make a phone call, or communicate with a person outside the vehicle”?
- Why do legislators often demand incontrovertible statistical evidence before enacting stricter safe driving measures when the risks are obvious? In 2014, at a conference, I heard a leading traffic safety engineer say that, “We don’t know definitively how risky cell phone use while driving is.” Well, maybe not to the fourth decimal point, but should the lack of precise, multi-year data hold us back from common sense safety regulation when the danger, if not the exact quantity, is clear?
In summary, can we envision adopting driving laws that better align with science and evidence; requiring safety education for parents of teen drivers; banning cars that can go faster than any speed limit; allowing only advertising that proclaims features, but doesn’t show driving fantasies; making manufacturers prove that electronic devices are safe before installing them; imposing a uniform distracted driving law that focuses on driver conduct instead of particular devices; and treating hands-free and voice-activated the same as hand-held? The costs and even the inconvenience would not be substantial, but the lives saved would be.
As I always say, I am not an expert, engineer, or professional; I’m just a Dad with a keyboard, fueled by a still-raw, emotional need to vindicate the memory of a boy who died. I’m a guy who has done some research and writing, an outsider questioning what has and has not been achieved, and why. It’s a strange thing, traffic safety advocacy: success is ephemeral and change is incredibly hard.
Giving up and accepting fatalities and injuries as the price of our mobility, or beyond our control, is not an option.
Tim Hollister, of West Hartford, is the author of “From Reid’s Dad,” www.fromreidsdad.org, a national blog for parents of teen drivers, and Not So Fast: Parenting Your Teen Through The Dangers of Driving (Chicago Review Press, 2013). Tim’s advocacy has received national public service awards from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Governors Highway Safety Association, and the National Safety Council. This excerpt of his Reflection is printed with permission. The full text can be seen here.