LEWISTON – Maine has done a lot to help young drivers stay alive.

In 2003, the Legislature created a “graduated license” that placed tougher restrictions on new drivers under 18.

In 2005, Maine State Police began the “Safeguard” program, in which they call parents when teens are involved in risky behavior, from running red lights to drinking.

The state also has taken away appeal rights when teen drivers lose their licenses for infractions.

Despite all that, a recent report ranked Maine second among all states in youth-related fatal crashes.

“You’d think they’d be going down, but they’re not,” said Carl Halmann, spokesman for the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety

The report, based on 2005 data, showed that nearly 22 percent of Maine crash deaths involved drivers between the ages of 16 and 20. Only Delaware had a higher rate.

Maine ranked third in the nation in 2004, according to the report released by End Needless Deaths on our Roadways and the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma.

The physician-led groups are calling on states to take action, such as enforcing tougher restrictions for young drivers.

Though Maine is already following some of the doctors’ recommendations, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap applauded the call to action.

Maine’s graduated license mandates that for the first six months of being licensed, teens can’t drive while talking on cell phones, can’t drive with other teens in the car and can’t drive between midnight and 5 a.m.

The law is still relatively new, but Dunlap was disheartened to see an increase in the rate of fatal crashes, he said.

“What we’re dealing with here is basic social psychology,” he said. “It’s peer pressure, and it’s going to be somebody else. This is nothing new.” Nor is it unique to Maine.

Other than the fact that Maine is more rural than most states and people are more dependent on motor vehicles, Dunlap was at a loss to make sense of why Maine’s young-driver death rate is worse than most states.

He wondered whether Maine’s graduated license instills a false sense of security. After teens pass the six months of restrictions, “Do they think they’re qualified fighter pilots?”

Cell talk, changing CDs

The top causes of youth-related fatal crashes are driver inattention, speed and alcohol, in that order, according to the Maine Highway Safety Bureau.

“You get too many kids in the vehicle. Kids talking on the cell phone,” Halmann said. “They’re changing CDs and not paying attention. They don’t have control of the vehicle.”

To combat that, Maine needs to find the laws in its system, Dunlap said. “It’s about keeping people out of funeral homes.”

Halmann said improving young drivers’ safety is a priority for the safety bureau. Part of the solution is to work with parents and teens. Parents need to be better educated “that their kids can really get into trouble on the road,” Halmann said. Teens need to believe they or others can die behind the wheel.

That could call for graphic, reality-based public service announcements that show what happens during crashes, similar to recent motorcycle safety announcements.

Some found that message shocking and scary, but it illustrated how quickly crashes can happen, Halmann said.

Auburn Police Chief Phil Crowell agreed that more reality-based public-service announcements would be the way to go. Teens would relate to seeing other teens, their behavior and what happens in crashes, he said.

The state has taken the right steps in its graduated license restrictions and automatic suspensions, Crowell said, adding that more steps may be needed. Maine could refine existing restrictions, he said. “Maybe look at what time of day crashes happen.” If most are at night, tighter restrictions on night driving may need to be considered.

But the bottom line for young drivers’ fatality rates depends on young drivers.

“There are no silver bullets,” Dunlap said. “We cannot control by policy the individual behind the wheel. We depend on them more than anything we can dream up.”

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