Numbers compiled by the state and analyzed by the University of Delaware shows a dramatic reduction in the number of car accidents involving teen drivers.


In 1997, Newark Sen. Dave Sokola was leading a public forum at John Dickinson High School about a piece of legislation he was considering that would raise the age at which teenagers could get their drivers’ licenses.

Sokola remembers how many parents claimed upping the age wouldn’t make their teenagers safer drivers, plus they’d have to continue chauffeuring their kids around to sports practices, extracurricular activities, parties, the movies and all the other places high school kids go after school.

Susan Vavala stood up to speak and said, “I wish I could drive my daughter around.” Two years earlier, Kim Vavala was killed in a car accident two days before her 16th birthday. She was riding with a friend who had just gotten his license and lost control of the car on a wet road.

The room went silent, and Sokola said he knew at that moment the legislation that would eventually become Delaware’s Graduated Driver License law was a worthwhile cause.

Now, 11 years later, Data compiled by the state and analyzed by the University of Delaware shows a dramatic reduction in the number of car accidents involving teen drivers.

Since the law took effect, crash rates for 16-year-old drivers have fallen nearly 31%, and personal injuries resulting from those accidents fell 30%.

In 1998, a year before the GDL law was implemented, 16 year olds were involved in 1,001 crashes statewide. In 2008, that number had fallen to 372.

The law pushed back the age at which a new driver can get a learner’s permit from 15 years and 10 months old to 16 years old. For six months, a new driver can only go out on the roads with another licensed driver at least 25 years old in the passenger’s seat. For six months after that, new drivers cannot be on the road after 10 p.m. and may only carry a maximum of two passengers.

The nighttime driving restrictions, which can be waived for work or religious reasons, were one of the biggest points of contention when the law was being debated, Sokola said, but the data shows big results.

The number of crashes involving 16 year olds that took place between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. fell by almost 60% over 10 years.

Lewis Schiliro, Delaware secretary of safety and homeland security, said the law has saved untold lives since it was enacted.

“The state’s GDL law has had great results over the past 10 years,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind that many people are with us today because of this law.”

Sokola often cites the GDL law as the single most important piece of legislation he worked to pass in his 20 years as a legislator.

He said the law is all about giving new drivers the chance to gain experience in a more controlled setting before they head out on their own with a carload of friends.

“Getting experience in various conditions, those things are very valuable,” he said. “There’s a temptation to do things that take your attention off the road.”

Susan Vavala now works as a guidance counselor at St. Mark’s High School in Wilmington, where her daughter went to school.

She said the GDL law is more than just a mandate that forces teenagers to ease into driving, but it also empowers new drivers who are unsure of themselves on the road.

The law makes it easier for them to say no to driving a group of friends around at night, without any social consequences, she said.

For Vavala, the implementation of the GDL law and its success over the last decade has been a validation of her daughter’s legacy.

“It’s very gratifying. No one wants to walk in my shoes,” she said. “I’m sure [Kim]’s very proud of this accomplishment.”

 

DID YOU KNOW?

Per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

 

NUMBERS TO KNOW

30.8% - Reduction in crashes involving 16 year olds, 1998 to 2008

30.1% - Reduction in personal injury rate in crashes involving 16 year olds, 1998 to 2008

59.1% - Reduction in crashes involving 16 year olds between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., 1998 to 2008

 

Email Doug Denison at doug.denison@doverpost.com