Day 2 of a 3-Part Special Report
Lisa Johnson was living about as dangerously as she could without breaking the law. The 16-year-old sophomore at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale told her mom that she was staying the night at a friend’s house in January 2003.
But sometime that night the girls made a bad decision, as kids that age often do.
Two boys they knew came by and the kids snuck off to go for a drive. They got all the way to Sedona, but with nothing much to do there they started back home.
It was still a few hours before dawn on the open highway. Lisa was in the back seat with two of the kids. They weren’t wearing seat belts.
Ryan Brown, the 15-year-old driver, was alone in front. With only a learner’s permit, he shouldn’t have been driving without an adult.
The four kids crammed into the sports utility vehicle were heading down Interstate 17 at or close to the 75 mph speed limit.
Near Cordes Junction, Ryan turned to look over his shoulder into the back seat. When he did, the truck drifted to the left, its wheels slipping off the pavement and into the dirt median. Ryan jerked the wheels back onto the roadway. But at that speed the truck swerved violently as he struggled to regain control. Finally it flipped, throwing Lisa onto the asphalt.
When police arrived, she was already dead, a sheet covering her body as she lay in the emergency lane in front of the wreckage.
Jeanne Fletcher, Lisa’s mom, says she understands why good kids like her daughter find themselves in bad situations. Sixteen-year-olds are at an age when they are just beginning to gain their independence. It’s an age when social interactions with other teenagers are so important.
Yet it is also the time they begin driving, the most dangerous thing they are likely to do in their young lives.
Most states put limits on new drivers, dictating when they can drive and whether they can carry teenage passengers. Arizona does not.
Fletcher said driving limits had not been an issue with Lisa, who kept so busy at school that she hadn’t bothered to get her license.
The last time Fletcher heard from Lisa was about 11 p.m., when she got a “good night, I love you” call from her daughter. The first time Fletcher learned that Lisa had snuck out for what would become her last ride was the next day, when two Arizona Department of Public Safety officers showed up at her door with the news that her only child was dead.
“I see now that when our diligence needs to be at its highest we tend to let go too soon,” Fletcher said of the balance parents must make as their teenagers grow more independent. “At 15 and 16, we give them such an increased privilege, and such a dangerous one.
“As parents, we just give them too big a push right at that age, when they are not ready for that much independence.”
Fletcher knows children like Lisa will continue dying on the roads in Arizona, regardless of what laws are passed. But she adds it is frustrating that there is so little interest here in laws that restrict young teenage drivers, which have cut fatalities among that age group in other states. Driving restrictions on 16- and 17-year-olds seem like a small price if it would mean there were not quite so many mothers like her, who have to bury their children after a car crash, she said.
“People will say ‘what can you do? They are risk-takers,’ ” Fletcher said. “Certainly a good law that phases in their privileges is not going to prevent every fatality. I’m not naive enough to think that any one thing can eradicate it. But one thing can help.”
Figuring out how to make young drivers safer is so confounding that researchers have given it a name: the young-driver paradox. The only way to make new drivers safer is for them to gain experience behind the wheel. The only only way for them to gain experience is to expose them to the risks of driving.
While identifying the problem is relatively simple, finding a way to limit the risks has been more problematic.
Almost every state has restrictions on new drivers who are younger than 18. Known as graduated driver’s licensing, the laws typically ban these new drivers from the roads during certain hours, and prohibit them from carrying other teenagers as passengers.
Virtually every study that has been done on graduated licensing laws shows they cut the rates of both total accidents and fatal crashes among young drivers. Most of the research puts the reductions in the 25 percent range.
Arizona is one of five states without the restrictions. The prevailing attitude among lawmakers here is that it is the parents’ job to set rules for their kids, not the government’s.
Graduated licensing is based on the notion that some types of driving are more dangerous.
Night driving — especially between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. — is considered riskier than daytime driving, advocates of the laws say.
For new drivers, being on the road at night is about three times more dangerous than daytime driving, according to studies of teen driving patterns. While surveys of driving behaviors show kids do about 15 percent of their driving between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., that is when about a third of their fatal accidents occur, national studies show. In Arizona, it’s about 37 percent, according to a Tribune review of a database of all Arizona accidents in 2004.
Kids just learning to drive have to contend with reduced vision and glare. Driving late at night tends to be more recreational, which means kids are likely to have other teens in the car with them, are more likely to have been using drugs or alcohol, and are less likely to wear seat belts, according to several studies of teen driving behaviors. Nighttime also is when other dangerous drivers, particularly drunken drivers, are most likely to be on the road.
Driving with other teenagers in the car is more dangerous than driving alone, research shows. Other kids tend to distract young drivers, and may goad them into taking risks like speeding to show off, said Susan Baker, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Injury Research and Policy, who worked on some of the first studies to assess the dangers that young passengers bring.
The odds of a young driver being killed in a car crash increase about 39 percent with a single teenage passenger, according to the 2000 study by Baker and her colleagues. The chances of dying nearly doubles with two passengers, and almost triples with three.
The deadliest driving situation for kids is exactly the one Lisa Johnson put herself in — late at night, in the car packed full of teenagers, with a young boy driving and on an open stretch of highway, according to studies that analyzed the driving patterns and crash rates for young drivers.
There is near unanimous agreement among researchers that graduated licensing saves lives, according to the more than three dozen studies and reports on the issue reviewed by the Tribune. Less certain is exactly how many lives can be saved, or which aspects of the laws are the most effective.
Estimates of the lifesaving benefits of graduated licensing vary widely. Some studies put the reductions in both fatal and overall crashes at a few percentage points. Others report reductions of more than 50 percent.
There also is little proof that the restrictions actually make kids better drivers, according to several studies. The lives saved and accidents averted may come simply by allowing teenage drivers on the roads for fewer hours in a given day. Limiting passengers also may only reduce the the chances that someone gets killed in a serious accident because there are fewer people in the vehicle who are apt to die.
“We know we are seeing a change. We don’t know why,” said Susan Ferguson, senior vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “If all we had was a reduction in driving, I don’t have a problem with that.”
The institute, an independent organization funded by the insurance industry, has conducted much of the research on graduated licensing and advocates passage of the laws.
While studies cannot prove specifically why the restrictions reduce teen crashes, there is ample research documenting the behaviors they target, Ferguson said.
“I think the reason graduated driver’s licensing works is it takes them out of situations that are potentially dangerous,” Ferguson said. “It’s not actually saying at night we want you to drive more safely. It’s saying we know you are going to be more dangerous at night, and we’re not going to allow you to do it. And we know you are going to be more dangerous with teens in the car, so we’re not going to let you have them in there.”
Graduated licensing has been pushed in the United States since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration developed a model law in 1977 and urged states to pass it. The model law included a night-driving restriction, and was later revised to include a passenger restriction.
Initially there was little interest. No state adopted the entire law, and only two passed elements of it, Maryland in 1978 and California in 1983. Early studies in those states credited the law with drops in the crash rates of young drivers of about 5 percent.
Florida was the first state to adopt the complete model in 1996. Within a year, Florida reported a 9 percent drop in accidents involving injury or death among young teen drivers. Over the next four years, 30 states had passed some form of graduated licensing. Studies in those states showed significant reductions in crash rates involving adolescent drivers.
As of this year, 44 states have night-driving restrictions, though the hours vary. Passenger restrictions are in place in 34 states, but again different states have different rules and exemptions. Both provisions have been passed in 33 states.
Only five states, including Arizona, have neither.
While there is little dispute among researchers that graduated licensing cuts crash rates for young drivers, they have not been able to sort out which part of the law is most effective. Night-driving and passenger restrictions typically are adopted as a package, making it tough to separate out the benefits of one element over another, according to several studies. Enforcement is another problem. A California study published in 2003 found only about 60 percent of young drivers complied with that state’s night-driving restriction, and about half followed the passenger limits.
Curfews are tough to enforce, said Sgt. Mark Clark of the Scottsdale Police Department, who helped craft the city’s ordinance when he was on the department’s gang and youth intervention detail in the 1990s. Police can’t just stop people who look young, whether it be to enforce existing curfew ordinances or driving restrictions that the Legislature may pass in the future, said Clark, now a department spokesman. Constitutional protections require police to have a reason to stop someone. Just looking young is not sufficient grounds, Clark said. It’s tough for cops to tell whether someone is 17, and subject to curfew laws, rather than 18 just by looking at them.
Scottsdale and other East Valley cities all have ordinances that prohibit 16- and 17-year-olds from being out between midnight and 5 a.m., with a few exceptions.
Usually curfew enforcement is done after police stop kids for some other reason, like a traffic violation, Clark said.
Thomas Dee, an associate professor of economics at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, was part of a study published last year that attempted to factor in differences in state laws and problems with enforcement. That study graded how strict the laws were in various states, then tried to figure out how effectively they had reduced teen crashes.
States with driving curfews that began before midnight, passenger restrictions, and good enforcement showed reductions of about 19 percent in traffic fatalities involving drivers aged 15 through 17, according to the study, which compared state-bystate data over a 10-year period.
States with fewer restrictions and lax enforcement showed declines of traffic deaths involving that age group of about 5.6 percent.
Dee said in an interview with the Tribune that there was no evidence that restrictions on 16-and 17-year-old drivers led to higher crash rates when they turned 18 and the restrictions came off.
“These are fatality reductions, and how people choose to feel about that depends on trading that off with the fact that you are constraining people,” Dee said. “Ultimately, it is kind of a morbid, value-based decision. My own instinct is I would vote for these policies because I do place a high value on these young lives.”
The morbid choice is an easy one for Fletcher.
After Lisa died, Fletcher met with legislators to urge them to adopt a graduated licensing law in Arizona. So far, she has had no success.
The main objection from opponents is that parents should decide when their kids drive, and who rides with them.
Fletcher agrees for the most part. But she adds the state does have a responsibility to put laws in place to protect children and regulate behaviors on public roads.
“The parental-rights issue is limited because that would only apply in my mind if your teenager only drives up and down your driveway,” Fletcher said. “As soon as your teenager is driving on a public street, it’s a public issue.
“As a community, we still protect our children. With graduated driver’s licenses, I don’t think we can ever pin down how many lives are saved. But it appears there are at least one or two and if that’s the case, then why not?”
TUESDAY: The solutions: Arizona lawmakers have little interest in restricting young drivers.