Texas faced a serious problem. Although it offered the ability to go to driving schools in the state for motorist education, the fatality rate for teens was highest in the nation.
After more than a year on the books, state officials say that the accident rate for teen drivers resulting in deaths has dropped by more than one-third between 2002 and 2007, and the new laws in place since 2009 are expected to reduce that even further.
The approach is two-pronged: legislation now requires more time behind the wheel and in the classroom for novice drivers. That includes practice driving in the evening, new restrictions on the amount of time that parents can instruct their children in place of a certified instructor. In addition, Texas schools are required to offer driver safety and traffic education courses on an annual basis to increase the availability to many students.
This is being combined with a social awareness program that uses responsible teens as good examples for each other. Known as "Teens in the Drivers Seat," the program reached more than a quarter million Texas adolescents in its first year, and relies on positive peer pressure to reinforce restrictions from the state's graduated license program.
Also known as a "Cinderella law" because of its curfew, new drivers in Texas are unable to operate cell phone devices for their first months driving, cannot carry more than one passenger and cannot be out in a car beyond a curfew except for work or other exigent circumstances.
Thousands of families have to deal with the unfortunate fact that teen drivers are involved in more deadly accidents than those in other age groups, but the Texas state legislature and the various groups behind the dual initiatives are hopeful that the new steps will help to reduce the state's fatality rates, still among the country's highest.
Some of the key points in any Texas driving school's curriculum involve the elimination of distractions. While the law prohibits the use of cell phones by younger motorists, a study by the Texas Transportation Institute found that in 2009, roughly half of all teen drivers still admitted to texting and talking on their cell phones while behind the wheel. The practice was most prevalent in rural areas.
"We believe that what we've learned directly from teens in Texas can add a lot to that understanding and lead to safer driving conditions for all of us," said TTI senior research engineer Russell Henk.
Still, the data suggests that the third leading contributor to teen accidents are distractions including excess passengers and the use of electronic devices. Officials at TTI and elsewhere hope that the drops in teens who do both will continue the double-digit declines that they have seen in the past several years.
One option is for Texas teens to continue to support each other by encouraging more law-following behavior. Another may be to enroll in a Online Texas Defensive Driving Class
that highlights the sobering statistics about what happens when younger Texans fail to stay focused on the road.