The numbers only begin to tell the tale when it comes to fatal car accidents among young drivers, but in New York they tell enough of a story to demand the attention of state legislators.
Some 26,000 fatal or personal injury accidents involving drivers between the ages of 16 and 20 occurred in this state in 2005. About 60 percent of those accidents occurred upstate, where about 64 percent of those drivers live. But if those proportions seem about right, other comparisons show how upstate driving laws put young drivers at risk and, beyond that, 26,000 such accidents are far too many -- an average of 71 a day. Other states are more methodical about granting full driving privileges to young motorists.
The most telling comparison, reported in this newspaper, was between Erie and Westchester counties, regions of similar population but different driver licensing regulations. In Erie County, which operates under upstate's looser restrictions on young drivers, 14 teenagers were involved in fatal accidents in 2005, while Westchester, which falls under downstate's tighter rules, recorded only three teenage drivers in fatal accidents.
In the same year, Erie County recorded 2,741 accidents involving drivers between the ages of 16 and 20, while Westchester had only 1,995.
Those discrepancies are hard to explain away except by differences in licensing rules. Downstate rules generally impose more restrictions on when teenagers can drive and for what reasons.
New York, which once was a national leader in licensing rules for young drivers, now lags behind many other states. For example, New York allows two nonfamily passengers to ride in a car driven by someone holding a junior license. As an insurance expert observed, that allows a different "social dynamic" in the car -- a more distracting one -- than exists in states that allow no passengers under 21 when a teenager is driving.
New York also allows young drivers to graduate more quickly to a full license than other states and demands fewer hour of instruction and supervised driving. Unlike some other states, it also allows young drivers to carry cell phones and text messaging devices.
The cost is horrific. It was exacted just last month when five new high school graduates died in a crash near Rochester. One of the passengers apparently had just sent a text message using the driver's cell phone, though it is not certain if the driver or a passenger sent the message. Those losses, to families, friends and communities, will reverberate for decades in ways most of us can't even imagine.
Albany is notoriously slow at passing common sense laws. It took the decapitation death of a child before it raised penalties this year for drunken driving fatalities, and even then the State Assembly dragged its feet.
More restrictive licensing laws would be a burden on some youths and their families, but they are clearly the right thing to do. Inexperience and the incautious nature of youth cannot be overcome except by enforced prudence. Albany doesn't have a lot of that on its own, but it might have enough to see the need for this change.