Last week, after more than four years of extensions (far too many to count), endless hearings and meetings, and plenty of partisan bickering, Congress passed a new highway bill. Dubbed MAP-21 or Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, the long overdue legislation reauthorizes the Federal-aid highway program at the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline level—equal to current
funding levels plus inflation—for two fiscal years.
For those of you who don’t get excited about transportation funding, hear me out. MAP-21 is big news not just because our elected officials in Washington finally got this done, but because it substantially increases funding (music to my ears) for the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP). Under HSIP, states are charged with developing and implementing safety plans that addresses their most serious traffic safety problems—things like drunk, aggressive and distracted driving, and speeding. Because of these plans, motor vehicle deaths nationwide according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), have fallen from 37,423 in 2008, to an estimated (data is not yet final) 32,310 last year. That’s 5,113 fewer lives lost on our roadways or a reduction of 13.6 percent.
I was also pleased to learn the highway bill contains language that makes the safety of teen drivers a national priority. Now I know what you’re thinking, states need Congress to tell them that teen car crashes are a problem? Based on the work I’ve been doing in teen driver safety since the early 1990s, I can assure you that states are well aware that car crashes are the number one killer of 16- to 20-year-olds. And, they’re doing a great deal to address the problem, including passing and strengthening Graduated Driver License (GDL) laws and developing and implementing outreach and education programs.
What MAP-21 does is clearly spell out that State Highway Safety Offices (SHSO), the recipient of federal safety dollars, may use a portion of their Section 402 funds “to implement statewide efforts to improve traffic safety for teen drivers.” MAP-21 specifically calls on states to fund peer-to-peer education and prevention strategies in schools and communities to increase seat belt use (teens have the lowest belt use of any age group) as well as address impaired and distracted driving (the latter is the number one cause of teen crashes in our state), underage drinking, and other unsafe behaviors that put teens at risk.
Teens from across the nation, led by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), called on Congress to include this language known as the STARS Act (Students Taking Action for Road Safety), in the bill. They argued that despite teens accounting for 13 percent of the fatalities on our nation’s roadways, just $2 million or 0.2% (one fifth of one percent) of NHTSA’s 2010 annual budget was spent on teen driving-related programs. STARS supporters point out that having a dedicated funding stream specifically focused on the safety of drivers under 21, will “empower teens to play an active role in their own safety” and that of their peers.
Here in New Jersey, the SHSO has made teen driving a priority as demonstrated through its efforts to bolster our GDL program (recognized as one of the most progressive in the nation). The Trenton-based office also funds online resources for parents, teens and educators; and developed and implements Share the Keys, an interactive orientation for teens and parents designed to reduce teen driver crash risk by increasing parental involvement.
Several years ago, the SHSO also began funding a new peer-to-peer initiative called The Champion Schools Program. Created by the Brain Injury Alliance of New Jersey, the initiative encourages high school students to develop and implement school and community-based teen safe driving programs that engage and educate their peers. Since its inception in 2010, more than 50 high schools have developed campaigns addressing distracted and impaired driving, speeding, lack of seat belt use, and other unsafe behaviors. Students are encouraged to be creative as they compete for prizes including a driving simulator for their school. From websites and school activities, to music videos and costumed characters (be sure to check out this year’s grand prize winning GDL Man and Don’t Text and Drive campaigns), the teens are grabbing their peers’ attention.
Thanks to the inclusion of the STARS Act in MAP-21, initiatives like New Jersey’s Champions School Program as well as Battle of the Belt in Missouri, Teens in the Driver Seat in Texas, Operation Teen Safe Driving in Illinois and Michigan, and Don’t Drive Stupid in Utah will take on even more significance in the next couple of years. While GDL programs, which focus on regulation and enforcement, are helping to push teen driver crashes and deaths to record lows, getting teens actively involved in the effort is critical. That’s because while adults may think they’re best-suited to help novice drivers understand the risks they face on the road (yes, parents we must be positive role models and the chief enforcer of the GDL program), research confirms that giving teens more of the responsibility for
developing and delivering the message is essential for sparking greater interest, understanding and acceptance among this age group.