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Fifteen-year-old Brianna Salazar fills out a practice worksheet during Greg Sarver’s Driver’s Education class at La Salle-Peru High School on Thursday morning. First-time drivers under 21 are subject to graduated licensing requirements that require more behind-the-wheel training and impose more restrictions than in years past. More than a decade after the standards were adopted, statistics show they have worked: Tickets, accidents and fatalities among young drivers have all plummeted.
As a rookie cop, Mark Credi was dispatched to an eye-popping crash: A driver celebrating her 16th birthday drove from the Secretary of State’s Office with a freshly-minted license and promptly T-boned another car. “So within 20 minutes of getting her license, I took her license from her, she got into her first wreck and she had her first ticket,” marveled Credi, now a 15-year veteran of the Peru Police Department. These days, however, Credi said he doesn’t see too many crashes involving first-time drivers, or even catch many youthful indiscretions such as drag racing or overfilling the passenger compartment with teenagers. Around the time Credi got his badge, Illinois implemented graduated licensing requirements that force students to spend more practice time at the wheel and raise the stakes for recklessness and immaturity. “I’ve definitely seen a change,” Credi said. “When I started 15 years ago, seatbelt use was extremely low; now everybody’s buckled up. You see hardly any zero-tolerance arrests anymore; I can’t remember the last time our department had one. “There’s more for young drivers to lose,” he explained. “They realize that driving is a privilege; it’s not a right you get when you turn 16.” Statistically, traffic tickets, alcohol-related offenses and vehicular fatalities have all tumbled since Illinois revised licensing standards for first-time drivers. Through age 21, drivers in Illinois must meet progressive requirements including 50 hours of at-the-wheel training while also abiding by a zero-tolerance standard for alcohol and cellular telephone use. “It’s forcing kids to get more experience before they’re turned loose on the roads by themselves,” said Trooper Craig Graham, spokesman for District 17 state police in La Salle. “With the added penalties, it forces them to be a little more responsible.” Indeed, breaking the rules is costly. Rich Koehler, driver education instructor for La Salle-Peru Township High School, said Springfield put more teeth into the rules so that young drivers must appear in court with mom or dad and today face a de facto two-strikes-you’re-out policy. “Sixteen-year-olds get their licenses about the same way as they did before,” Koehler said, “but they’re taking them away 10 times faster than they’ve ever taken them before.” The result is that in every major category available, vehicle offenses and mishaps are down thanks in part to graduated licensing. In La Salle County, for example, the traffic caseload has steadily fallen since 2003. That year, La Salle County issued a record 25,000 traffic tickets; this year, the county is on pace for fewer than 14,000. “I absolutely think graduated licensing has been a big help,” said assistant La Salle County state’s attorney Jason Goode. “Two moving violations in a two-year period suspends a kid. It’s harsh but it’s effective.” Graduated licensing has had a notable effect on alcohol-related offenses, too. In La Salle, Marshall and Bureau counties, zero-tolerance arrests have fallen by 50 percent or more over a three-year period ending in 2011, the most recent year available. Marshall County’s figures were especially remarkable: There were no zero-tolerance arrests in 2010 or 2011. Accidents and fatalities are down, as well. Goode noted that one of the biggest headaches for police, first-responders and prosecutors once was crashes involving six teenagers crammed into a four-seat car. Graduated licensing directly addressed that to limit occupancy, and injuries have plummeted accordingly. “Kids know what they can and can’t do,” Goode said. “The number of teenagers in cars has always been a big factor in accidents — there’s no doubt about that — and the fact that they’re in front of it is a great thing.” Graham readily attributed graduated licensing to a statewide decline in accidents and deaths, but noted there were other factors at work, as well. Awareness programs such as Operation Teen Safe Driving became prevalent in Illinois last decade after Tazewell County had a horrendous run of teen fatalities. The resulting programs were adopted statewide and got the message across that reckless behavior kills. “It’s helped drastically,” he said. La Salle County coroner Jody Bernard agreed that graduated licensing has fueled a decline in vehicular fatalities but emphasized traffic deaths had been declining, anyway. A combination of tough DUI laws, advances in vehicle safety and a bad economy have motorists exercising more restraint in safer cars and thus getting into fewer fatal wrecks. After peaking at 53 auto fatalities in the early 1970s, La Salle County’s total has steadily declined to where the annual average slid into the 20s during the 1990s and then kept falling. There were just 17 fatalities in 2011 and a record-low 12 last year. “We have steadily seen the number of fatalities decrease over the past several years,” Bernard said, acknowledging that graduated licensing is one of several contributing factors. Koehler, too, observed that tough economic times have altered driver behavior as a whole. High fuel costs have cut down on discretionary miles, he said, and a decline in disposable income has altered alcohol consumption, with the result that alcohol offenses have diminished among drivers of all ages.