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Study examines victims in teen drivers' fatal crashes

WASHINGTON—Nearly two-thirds of the victims in fatal crashes involving young drivers are their passengers, pedestrians or victims in other cars, according to an analysis released Wednesday.

"We need to focus on the effects teen-driver crashes have on others, in addition to the teen drivers themselves," said Robert Darbelnet, president of the motorist group AAA, which sponsored the study.

AAA and other driving safety groups want states to pass tougher driver's licensing laws to curb the carnage. Darbelnet wants every state to require:

_Six- to 12-month probationary licenses for teens.

_A minimum midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew for teens with provisional licenses.

_A ban on their carrying teen passengers.

_50 hours of adult-supervised driving during the learner's permit stage.

The study found that drivers aged 15 to 17 were involved in crashes that killed 30,917 people in the past decade. About a third of those killed were teen drivers. Another third were their passengers. A quarter were occupants of other vehicles. The rest—about 8 percent—were nonmotorists.

In recent years, every state has introduced some new restrictions on new licensees' driving. Few are as tough, however, as AAA and two allied groups—the Governors Highway Safety Association and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety—would like.

Russ Rader, spokesman for the insurance industry's safety promotion group, said the new laws are working.

"We know that crashes involving 16-year-olds have declined significantly, and it's because 16-year-olds just aren't getting their driver's licenses," he said.

The two most important safety measures, according to the insurance institute and Darbelnet's group, are curbs on nighttime driving by new young licensees and six-month bans on their carrying teen passengers.

According to AAA, six states have no restrictions on driving hours or teen passengers: Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Mexico and North Dakota.

Another 11 restrict only nighttime driving: Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Dakota.

Vermont restricts only teen passengers. Other states curb driving hours and teen passengers at least to a degree.

Darbelnet sees large gains from the restriction on teen passengers. He said risks for young drivers increase by 50 percent with one teen passenger in the car, and quintuple with two or more.

Jennifer Reeves, 31, was a victim of that six years ago, when a 16-year-old who was distracted by a conversation with friends crashed into Reeves' car just outside San Antonio. Reeves' 18-month-old child, Hanna, was instantly killed.

Struggling with tears and standing by a photo of her daughter at a news conference, Reeves said, "Every day I wish the laws in Texas were different at the time."

Whether states have passed tougher licensing laws or not, Darbelnet said parents need to take a stand against teens who dream of driving their friends to movies and hangouts, "even if it means playing chauffeur for a year or more."

AAA offers a drivers education forum for teens and their parents. Go to www.aaa.com/publicaffairs and click on Teen Drivers.

The Governors Highway Safety Association offers an online learning program for crash prevention at www.drivingskillsforlife.com.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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