My friend Jim captured this excellent moment in science reporting this morning. Thankfully, as I check Google News now, the headlines are drifting more towards the real story, which is fairly interesting. Turns out, deadly car accidents aren't so much a function of driver age as they are a function of driver experience.
Basically, over the past few decades, several states have placed stringent limits on teenage drivers—usually when they can drive, and who they can drive with. The idea was to separate first-time drivers from risky driving situations, and a lot of people assumed these measures were saving lives. Instead, we now know, the rules merely shifted when the deadly accidents happened. Some lives were saved. But, in general, the results were pretty much a wash.
The researchers found that states with the most restrictive graduated licensing programs — such as those that required supervised driving time as well as having night-driving restrictions and passenger limitations — saw a 26% reduction in the rate of fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers compared with states without any restrictions.
But the rate of fatal crashes among 18-year-old drivers in those states jumped 12% compared with the states without restrictions.
A similar trend was seen when comparing drivers in states with strong graduated licensing programs with those in states with weak programs: The rate of fatal crashes among 16-year-old drivers was 16% lower but was 10% higher among 18-year-old drivers.
Overall, since the first program was enacted in 1996, graduated programs were linked to 1,348 fewer fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers and 1,086 more fatal crashes involving 18-year-old drivers.
The speculative response: You can place restrictions on new drivers that limit their exposure to situations where mistakes are likely to happen. But, eventually, they'll have to navigate those situations on their own. And when they do, the mistakes creep back in. So maybe we need to look for a better way to mitigate the mistakes than simply instituting age-dependent restrictions. Personally, I wonder what the results would be if driving education included time to practice driving (either virtually or on a test course) with the distractions they're likely to encounter in real life. I know I learned how to drive and talk at the same time, and how to know when to shut everybody up, by experience. Maybe there's a way to do that in a safer environment.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.