New Jersey's tough teen-driving law may be about to get tougher, as state lawmakers seek to reduce the hazards of learning to drive.
But some experts worry about unintended consequences - that delaying full driving privileges also may delay, but not prevent, some teen fatalities.
A study published this fall in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that states with tougher teen-driving laws saw substantially reduced fatal crashes among 16-year-old drivers but increases in fatal crashes among 18-year-old drivers.
The reasons for the shift were not clear, but the study's authors speculated that some teen drivers may wait to get a license until they're old enough to avoid license restrictions. Another cause, the authors suggested, might be that new drivers, regardless of age, don't fully master the skills until they can drive without adult supervision.
"Supervised driving is . . . co-driving, and some important lessons of experience, such as the need to be fully responsible for a vehicle, cannot be learned until teens begin driving alone," the study said.
Even with the increase in fatal crashes among older teens, though, the overall effect of tougher teen driving laws was a reduction in teen fatalities, the study found, as have many other studies.
The JAMA study reported that since 1996, teen-driving restrictions have been associated with 1,348 fewer fatal crashes nationwide among 16-year-old drivers and 1,086 more fatal crashes among 18-year-old drivers.
In New Jersey, proposed changes in the teen-driving law - scheduled for a full Assembly vote Monday - would require new drivers to hold a learner's permit for a year, rather than six months, and to put in more practice hours before being allowed to drive alone.
Currently, teens can get a learner's permit at 16, allowing them to drive under the supervision of a licensed adult after they complete a six-hour driving course. They must have a learner's permit for six months before they can apply for a graduated driver's license at 17, which allows them to drive without a chaperone, but with only one other person in the car, among other restrictions.
A bill approved last week by the Assembly Transportation Committee would require that certified driving instruction be private and one-on-one; extend the permit phase from six months to one year for all new drivers up to age 21; and require all drivers under 18 to have a parent or other adult complete an approved driver orientation program with the teen, either in person or online, before they can get a license.
Additionally, the state wants to require more practice hours with a supervising adult, who signs a log of hours driven to show that the new driver has additional behind-the-wheel experience.
If the bill passes the Assembly, it would need to clear the Senate before year's end, when the current legislative session ends, to become law.
The legislation, introduced last session, was given new impetus after four teenaged football players died in a crash last summer near Atlantic City.
The driver, Casey Brenner, 17, had a restricted license that allowed him to carry only one passenger unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Brenner was driving a carload of teammates from Mainland Regional High School in Linwood to meet other players at a restaurant to celebrate the last practice of the summer before scrimmages were to start. The eight boys, aged 15 to 17, were crammed into a seven-seat SUV.
"This legislation provides the missing pieces in New Jersey's teen-driver-safety puzzle," said Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), a bill sponsor and chairman of the committee. "Not only will these requirements produce better and safer teen drivers, they will help parents feel more at ease when their child gets behind the wheel alone for the first time."
The changes in the driving law were recommended in a 2008 report by a commission created to study teen driver safety.
Pam Fischer, who served as chairwoman of that panel, said the proposal would save lives. As the mother of a student driver, she said additional training time was important.
"It's about getting out there every day," she said of teaching her 16-year-old son to drive. "There are a lot of teachable moments."
Tom Cornely, owner of Cornely Driving School in Haddonfield, said the proposed ban on "piggybacking," or having more than one student in an instructor's car, would level the playing field for driving schools.
And while the requirement for a yearlong permit "is maybe excessive," he said, "it will improve everybody to get more hours" behind the wheel.
Cornely also endorsed the required orientation for parents, "so parents understand the rules, too."
Fischer said the JAMA study had raised an important issue, but she noted that New Jersey's law requires the permit phase up to age 21, making it harder for would-be drivers to outwait the restrictions.
"The good news for us in New Jersey is that we don't allow teens to opt out at 18," she said. "You have to go through the same system till you're 21."
The lead author of the JAMA study, Scott Matsen, of the California Department of Motor Vehicles, said the most dangerous period for all drivers was the first few months of unsupervised driving, regardless of their age.
"The critical period is when they start driving," he said. "The highest crash rate for any driver is in the first month.
"They crash a ridiculous amount, whether they're 16 or 25."