Despite laws prohibiting unsafe driving behaviors like texting and driving while under the influence, Tennessee is experiencing a rise in traffic fatalities and injuries, DUIs and teen traffic deaths. This disturbing trend reinforces the need for tougher penalties in the state and continued development of Tennessee's graduated licensing program for young drivers.

Factors Contributing to the Rise in Teen Traffic Fatalities

There have already been 600 car accident deaths in Tennessee this year. Unfortunately, recent studies show that many of these fatalities could be among young drivers ages 15 to 24. In 2009, Nashville teen drivers died at a rate of 22.7 per 100,000-the third-highest rate in the nation behind Birmingham, Alabama, and Jacksonville, Florida.

Some experts believe the rise in traffic fatalities in teens and other Tennesseans can be attributed to lax penalties for dangerous traffic violations. For example, failing to wear a seatbelt incurs only a $50 fine, as does texting while driving for drivers over 18. For novice drivers under 18, texting while driving carries a $100 fine and restriction on the offender's driving privileges. By comparison, neighboring Georgia fines texting drivers $150 and dings the driver's record.

Another factor in the increase in teen driving deaths may be the lack of mandated driver's education courses in Tennessee. Not all school districts offer driver's education, and though private driving schools exist, the state does not require young drivers to enroll. Thus, many new drivers learn habits from their parents, who may or may not be good driving role models.

Tennessee's Graduated Licensing Program

Between lack of seatbelt use, little driver's education, texting while driving and other distracted driving behavior, teen drivers in Tennessee face prime conditions to be injured or killed in a motor vehicle crash. However, the state has taken one important step toward improving teen traffic fatality rates-a graduated licensing program, or GDL.

A GDL program allows new drivers to gradually gain driving independence. First, new drivers obtain a learner permit after passing a written driving test. Then, they complete 50 practice hours, including 10 at night, over a mandatory period of 180 days. With a learner permit, new motorists cannot drive overnight and an adult over 21 years old in the car at all times.

Once the 50 practices hours and 180-day period are complete, learner permit holders may apply for an intermediate restricted license after passing a road test. Intermediate restricted license holders cannot drive between the hours of 11 pm and 6 am and may only have one passenger in the car unless an adult over 21 is also present. All occupants must be belted.

New drivers must hold their intermediate restricted license for at least a year. Then, they may apply for an intermediate license, which drivers hold until they are 18, when they may apply for a regular license.

In Tennessee, drivers over the age of 18 or drivers who have finished high school but are younger than 18 do not have to participate in the GDL program.

Studies have shown that effective GDL programs increase teen driving safety. However, Tennessee still needs to make improvements to its other traffic laws to improve safety for all road users. People injured in a crash with a teen driver may be able to hold that teen responsible if he or she caused the crash. To understand your rights as an injured party in an accident with a teen, please contact an experienced personal injury attorney.


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