MINNEAPOLIS -- Fifteen-year-old Cole Sladek is embarking on a teenage right of passage: he's learning to drive.
"It's new," he said. "It was kind-of scary the first time I got behind the wheel."
The young driver admits his turns are still a little off, but three weeks after earning his instruction permit, Cole's father sees improvement.
"He's coming along pretty well," said Mitch Sladek, who has already guided one child to a driver's license.
The second time is a bit easier, Mitch said, but after 18 people, mostly teens, died in a one-week period on Minnesota roads in April, he sat down with his children to talk about the dangers of driving.
"We tried to make it a lesson," he said.
Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among 16- and 17-year-olds in Minnesota, according to the state's Department of Public Safety (DPS). They are 2.3 times more likely than all other drivers to be involved in a crash and 1.5 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash.
To cut down on teen driving deaths, many states have turned to tougher graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws. Some parents are also using modern technology, including in-vehicle cameras that monitor their children, to crackdown on poor driving habits.
After years of debate, Minnesota finally passed new driving restrictions for teen drivers in 2007. The new rules took effect nearly two years ago.
In the first six months, a newly licensed driver in Minnesota cannot drive between midnight and 5 a.m., with a few exceptions. They can also have no more than one passenger under the age of 20, unless a parent or guardian is in the vehicle.
In the second six months, the nighttime driving restrictions are lifted and teen drivers can have no more than three passengers under the age of 20.
Preliminary statistics show the changes might be working. Fatal and severe crashes involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers are down 17.7 percent, according to the DPS. But national teen crash numbers are also down and the number of newly licensed drivers has decreased, making it hard to say how well the new law is working.
"We need a little more time to really figure that out," said Gordy Pehrson, teen driving expert for the DPS. "But we know everything is going down as far as crash involvement, so that's good."
In the wake of Minnesota's deadly stretch of accidents this spring, some lawmakers and safety advocates started to question if Minnesota's laws were tough enough. Many studies have shown that stricter laws have a greater impact on teen driving deaths.
Minnesota's restrictions are "about middle of the road" compared to other states, Pehrson said.
According to an analysis of graduating driver's license laws around the country, 38 states have stricter passenger limits than Minnesota and 27 states have longer nighttime driving bans.
Minnesota requires at least 30 hours of supervised practice (10 at night) before a teen driver can get a license. Thirty-eight states require more time, although some do not call for nighttime driving.
But Minnesota does ban cell phone use and texting for all drivers under the age of 18, a move that is applauded by safety experts.
Massachusetts has received a lot of attention for its tough laws. First-time teen speeders lose their license for 90 days and must pay a $500 reinstatement fee. The threat of such a harsh punishment helped Massachusetts drop its fatal accident rate for teens by 75 percent.
Some lawmakers, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., are pushing for a national law, called the STANDUP ACT, which says drivers must wait until age 16 to get a permit and age 17 to get a license. Nighttime driving restrictions and passenger limits would last until drivers turn 18.
"If that's going to save lives, I think it's a great idea," Mitch Sladek said.
But his son disagrees.
"The younger you learn, the more experience you'll have," Cole said.
The National Youth Rights Association agrees with Cole, calling the bill unfair because it only focuses on young drivers.
"There's a level of families who rely on kids being able to drive and support their families," added Jessica Schaeppi, a local spokesperson for the group.
Some families are turning to technology to make their teenagers better drivers. Nick Gestach, 18, of Carver drives with an in-vehicle camera called DriveCam. The camera is constantly recording but only saves what it sees when it's triggered by something unusual, like taking a corner too fast or hitting the brakes too hard.
A 12-second video clip is then sent to Nick's parents, along with some driving tips.
"It's like you have a teammate out there helping your teen," said Amy Gestach, Nick's mother.
Earlier this year, DriveCam captured the moments leading up to a minor accident involving Nick. The camera shows him driving with his knees while using both hands open a candy bar. He never noticed the stopped car trying to make a left-hand turn in front of him and he bumped that car's back bumper.
No one was hurt and neither car was damaged, but the accident prompted Nick's parents to take away his driving privileges for a couple months.
Nick didn't realize how poorly he was driving until he saw the video.
"It really improves my driving," he said.
More than 10,000 teen drivers have used the technology, said Rusty Weiss, who oversees DriveCam's consumer division.
"We capture it, we collect it securely and then it's presented to mom and dad as a coaching tool to that teen," Weiss said. "It's just between the teen and the parents. Nobody else sees it."
One recent independent study by the University of Iowa, which included students from Eagan, showed that event-triggered video recorders reduced risky driving behaviors by 61 percent. Other independent studies have shown similar results.
While most teens (70 percent, according to DriveCam) do not like the technology at first, the company's surveys show that 70 percent are more positive than negative about it after six months. Eighty-four percent would recommend it to friends and classmates, Weiss said.
"Some teens might think it's horrible, might get mad at their parents,"Nick Gestach said. "But to be all honest, I believe it's a good thing to have."
DriveCam costs about $900 a year. Teen drivers using American Family Insurance can use the technology at no cost for a year.
Teens Behind the Wheel - A Roadmap for Parents: A brochure to help parents understand the risks associated with teen driving. Provides tools to help parents teach teens to be safer drivers. Includes a practice log and parent-teen driver contract.
Teen Driver Road Rules: A brochure providing an overview of teen driver laws, including Minnesota's nighttime and passenger limitations during the first year of licensure.
Teen-Parent Driving Contract and Practice Log: A contract between parent and teen to set rules and limits; practice log to help train teen driver.
Teen Driving in Minnesota: A general overview of teen driving, resources and facts from the Department of Public Safety Office of Traffic Safety.
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