Among the bills debated by the Rhode Island House on June 28, 2013, was H-5047, which would require six hours of on-the-road driver training from a Rhode Island training school before anyone would be eligible for a driver's license.
The bill -- which would have made it tougher for schools located in adjacent Massachusetts and Connecticut communities to do business here -- was submitted at the request of an unnamed driver training school operator in Rhode Island. It passed the House on a 42-to-26 vote but never made it through the Senate.
One supporter, Rep. Joseph McNamara, a Warwick Democrat, said he was in favor of anything that improved the quality of young Rhode Island drivers.
"As the original author and sponsor of our state's graduated driving license, which has saved hundreds of lives since it was initiated -- the gradual implementation -- I support any legislation that improves driving safety, especially for young people," he said.
Hundreds? That would be quite an accomplishment in a state where the number of highway deaths annually seldom exceeds 85. We decided to investigate.
The graduated driving license program placed tough restrictions on teen drivers. It extended the minimum time for a learner's permit, created a limited license and gave a full license only to young drivers who remained ticket- or accident-free for one year. The legislation was passed in 1998 and took effect in January 1999.
When we called McNamara, he said his statement was based on a comparison of teen fatalities before and immediately after the adoption. "Initially there was a severe drop, from double to single digits," he said, explaining that he had extrapolated from there.
Such a drop wouldn't be unexpected. Various studies published more than a decade ago had suggested that similar programs reduced teen crashes and fatalities among teen drivers by as much as 58 percent.
McNamara didn't have any Rhode Island numbers handy, so we called the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.
The best source of online data is the Fatality Analysis Reporting System of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It goes back to 1994, five years before the implementation of Rhode Island’s graduated license system.
RIDOT broke down the numbers for us for drivers ages 16, 17 and 18 who were most likely to be affected by the graduated license program.
In 1998, the year before that system took effect, there were 74 highway fatalities in Rhode Island. In 10 of those cases, a driver was 16 to 18 years old. The driver wasn't necessarily killed and wasn't necessarily at fault.
The following year, with the new law in place, the total number of fatalities rose to 88 but the number of fatalities in which the drivers were ages 16-18 dropped from 10 to 4. That's six fewer.
If the graduated license program was responsible -- a major assumption -- and the trend persisted for each subsequent year, that would be 78 lives saved through 2012, not the hundreds McNamara claimed.
But the trend didn't continue. The number of fatalities in the young driver category started rising over the next few years. By 2002 it was 12, higher than any of the five years prior to the implementation of the law.
During the five years before adoption, the total number of fatalities involving drivers 16-18 was 41. During the five years after adoption it was 42, essentially the same.
However, during the five years after the graduated license system was adopted, the total number of traffic fatalities rose by 25 percent. One could argue that if the youngest drivers had been part of that trend, there should have been about 51 deaths during that five-year stretch instead of 42.
Even under that scenario, that translates to two lives saved per year, or 28 saved since adoption of the law. That's still a far cry from hundreds.
McNamara said the Rhode Island graduated driving license law he authored "has saved hundreds of lives."
To meet that standard, you would have to see at least 200 fewer deaths on the state's highways since the law took effect in 1999.
But the data from five years before and five years after implementation -- even if viewed in the most favorable light -- show an impact that isn't even close to McNamara's claim.
We rate it False.
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