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South Dakotans Driving at 14 Faulted for Fatal Crashes

South Dakota, the U.S. state with the youngest licensed motorists, could cut fatal wrecks involving teens by more than half if it raises the minimum age to operate a vehicle and limits nighttime driving, an insurance group said.

The state, where a 14-year-old can get a learner’s permit, could reduce the rate of deadly crashes among drivers age 15 to 17 by 63 percent by boosting the licensing age, prohibiting teens from driving after 8 p.m. and restricting passengers, according to an analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit.

If such restrictions applied in all states, 500 fewer people would die in crashes each year, the organization said today in a statement accompanying its analysis.

“Any delay in the licensing age would have a beneficial effect,” Anne McCartt, IIHS senior vice president for research, said in a phone interview. “There could be tremendous benefits in some states from them taking a look at teen-licensing laws and toughening them up.”

Motor-vehicle crashes killed 21 people and injured 1,135 in South Dakota this year through May 4, according to the state’s Department of Public Safety. In 2010, there were 140 such deaths, or 17.2 per 100,000 state residents, compared with a national rate of 10.7, according to the IIHS.

South Dakota’s low driving age stems from its rural character and opposition to government regulation, said state Senator Joni Cutler, a member of the transportation committee who said she supports increasing the permit age to 15 or 16.

‘Driving Tractors’

“It goes back to the rural agricultural history of the state, where it’s not uncommon for kids to start driving tractors in the field,” said Cutler, a Republican from Sioux Falls. “For those of us who live in populated areas, we don’t quite see it the same way. I don’t really like to be out on the busy streets of South Dakota, near our shopping mall, in five o’clock traffic with a 14-year-old who’s driving an SUV.”

Cutler, 56, proposed a bill to prohibit teens from sending text messages while driving. It failed to gain the support of a state committee because lawmakers feared being seen as supporting too much government legislation, she said.

The state legislature created a task force last year to consider ways to improve teen-driver safety, said Cindy Gerber, director of driver licensing in the state Department of Public Safety. The group will report its findings in January, she said.

The IIHS recommends that all states set the licensing age at 17 and issue learner’s permits to those at least 16 years old, require 65 hours of supervised driving practice, restrict nighttime driving and ban teens from having teen passengers. No state follows all of the guidelines, McCartt said.

New Jersey, the only state that bars people from driving without supervision until age 17, could reduce fatal crashes involving teen drivers by 25 percent if it adopts all of the rules, according to IIHS. New York could lower the rate by 24 percent and Connecticut by 17 percent.

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