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AAA: Stronger laws, parental supervision needed for teen drivers

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Robert Darbelnet

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Road Accidents

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Fatal accidents involving teen drivers leave almost two times as many non-drivers dead as teens who were behind the wheel, according to a new report.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety said that between 1995 and 2004, nearly 31,000 people were killed in crashes involving drivers between the ages of 15 and 17. Of the 31,000 dead, 62.5 percent were passengers in a car driven by a teen, in another vehicle or pedestrians or bicyclists.

CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien spoke with AAA president and chief executive Robert Darbelnet Wednesday about the findings:

O'BRIEN: Were you shocked ... that, really, teenage drivers kill themselves a big percentage of the time, but even more often, they actually kill people who are on the street, in their vehicle, in the other vehicle?

DARBELNET: Indeed. It was a bit of a surprise. And as you pointed out, about two-thirds of the victims are not teen drivers, but other individuals -- either passengers or other motorists or even pedestrians or cyclists. So it was a bit of a surprise.

O'BRIEN: So why is that the case? I mean ... is it just because they're young and inexperienced? Is that the primary reason, do you think?

DARBELNET: Well, teen drivers are more likely to be involved in a fatal crash, in part because they are young and inexperienced, in part because they probably don't have the same sense of risk that older drivers might have. And they may also be more susceptible to distractions ... We have noted that when there are other teens riding with them, the likelihood of a fatal crash increases substantially.

O'BRIEN: Substantially. Do you know by what number?

DARBELNET: Well, it will probably double if there is one other teen passenger. And if there are two or more teen passengers riding with a teen driver, it may increase five-fold.

O'BRIEN: ... Now, already, as we've talked about, insurance rates are way high for teenage drivers. What else do you think needs to be done?

DARBELNET: Well, there are really two things that we need to focus on. One is better graduated driver licensing laws. Graduated driver licensing laws give young drivers gradual access to full driving rights, as they gradually acquire experience.

And a good graduated driver licensing law includes restrictions on the number of passengers that a teen can drive when they're just learning. It also includes restrictions on the hours at which a teen driver can use the vehicle. We know that the likelihood of a crash is twice as great at night as it is in the day, so restricting nighttime driving is part of the solution.

And then ensuring that there is parental supervision in the first hours of driving, perhaps the first 50 hours of driving, is another key component. All that, again, relates to good graduated driver licensing laws, which is part of the solution.

O'BRIEN: And how about other parts of the solution? Maybe legally speaking?

DARBELNET: Well, another part of the solution actually isn't so much a legal implication; it's a parental involvement. Parents have a big role to play in this, first in terms of setting the proper example. If, as a parent, when you drive your kids, you speed -- odds are, your children will speed when they get behind the wheel. If you tailgate, they probably will too. If you talk on your cell phone, they will probably mimic that behavior. So setting the right example is very important.

But if you live in one of the states where the graduated driver licensing law doesn't quite cover the elements that need to be included, then, as a parent, you need to step in and set additional rules of your own. If you live in a state, for example, where there is no restriction on nighttime driving, you as a parent need to set those rules within your own home.

O'BRIEN: The number of people killed by teenage drivers is actually decreasing over the last number of years. Why is that?

DARBELNET: Well, there's been a slight decrease, and we're very pleased with that. We think it's in part because of the adoption of these graduated driver licensing laws. Over the last eight years, we worked very hard to get every state in the union to adopt one of these laws. And they are all now in place.

The remaining challenge is to make them uniformly good, and we're going to be focused on improving those laws where they are falling short of our objectives. But we think part of the improvement comes from the very fact that these laws have been instituted.

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