SIKESTON -- Research indicates Missouri's graduated driver's license law, which became effective Jan. 1, 2001, will follow in the same path as its predecessors, reducing teen auto accidents and increasing driver's education.
"It's really too early to have hard statistics we can compare," said Lt. Tim Hull, assistant director of public information and education of the Missouri State Highway Patrol in Jefferson City. "It will probably take two or three years before we can get a feel of the program."
Hull said 2002 statistics haven't been released yet, but he predicted accidents and fatalities will be down.
Twelve studies released recently by the nonprofit National Safety Council found that graduated driver's license programs reduce teen crash rates by as much as 33 percent. One study found fatalities involving teen drivers plummeted 58 percent.
Among all drivers, however, teenagers still had the highest rate of fatal crashes -- 71 fatal crashes out of 100,000 for 16-year-olds; 63 out of 100,000 for 18-year-olds; 59 out of 100,000 for 17-year-olds; and 57 out of 100,000 for 19-year-olds.
In Missouri, the graduated driver license law requires that all first-time drivers between 15 and 18 years old complete a period of driving with a licensed driver (Instruction Permit), followed by a period of restricted driving during daylight hours (Intermediate License), before getting a full license.
"I think it's good that the kids have to be with a parent or guardian when they drive with a permit at 15," said Rosemary Latham, whose daughter turned 16 in December. "I was with her (in the car) a whole year before she turned 16. I think the program can make them more aware of driving."
Some parents have told Hull they keep a log of the time their child drives, including weather conditions and other circumstances, he said. Parents must provide 20 hours of behind-the-wheel instruction before their child received their full license when they turn 18.
Insurance Agent Vaughn Baker of Sikeston said he hasn't noticed a decrease in the number of teen accidents in the area. "But there weren't that many to begin with," he noted. "Our youth drivers haven't really fit the norm on a national basis for some time."
The National Safety Council, an Illinois-based nonprofit organization that lobbies the government on safety issues, examined graduated driver's license programs in the United States, Canada and New Zealand, which was the first country to adopt a graduated license system in 1984.
The studies indicated that such programs reduce teen crash rates whenever they are implemented.
For instance, in Florida, which was the first state to adopt a three-tiered licensing system in 1996, there was a 9 percent reduction in fatal and injury crashes for 15- to 17-year-olds from 1995 to 1997, according to a 2000 study published in the periodical Accident Analysis and Prevention.
In Pennsylvania, crashes involving 16-year-old drivers dropped 27 percent between 1999 and 2000, while fatalities in that group dropped by 58 percent, according to a 2002 study by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Researchers say the most likely cause of the drop in accident rates is that provisional licenses keep teens off the road, particularly between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.
One-third of fatal crashes involving teens occur between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., even though only 15 percent of the miles driven by teens are driven between those hours, according to the National Safety Council.
Hull said the patrol hasn't really received any negative feedback concerning the law over the past two years. The only negativity they receive is that 15 is too young for teens to drive. But prior to the law teens could get their permit when they were 15 and a half, he pointed out.
"I think it's a really good law because in that law, it puts a lot of responsibility on young drivers. If you look at the elements of the graduated driver's license law, you'll see that one of the requirements is that everyone in the vehicle must wear a seat belt regardless of the age, otherwise the license is null and void."
Approximately 12 public information officers throughout the state visit schools to inform teens of their responsibilities within the graduated driver's license program, Hull said. Researchers say it's also possible teens are driving more carefully under the restrictions, or that graduated licensing programs make parents more aware of safety restrictions and more likely to enforce them.
"When my son turned 16, the new law hadn't been created so his driver's permit was only for six months. But he also took a driver's education course, and I think it helped him a lot," Latham noted. "I think the more education new drivers receive, the better chance they have at becoming more responsible drivers."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.