Byline: Doug Gross, Times-Union staff writer
ATLANTA -- Teenage driving fatalities in Georgia have been on the decline in recent years as top lawmakers have made the issue a priority.
Officials say the beginning of the decrease coincides with a 1997 law, championed by then-Gov. Zell Miller, that made it easier for irresponsible teens to lose their license or permit.
Enacted on July 1, 1997, the Teenage and Adult Driver Responsibilities Act has helped reduce the number of teenage drivers killed in traffic accidents, according to officials with the Georgia Governor's Office of Highway Safety.
The number of Georgia fatalities in crashes involving 16-year-old drivers declined from 81 in 1996 to 47 in 1999. But also during that period, the number of fatalities involving 18-year-old drivers increased from 86 in 1996 to 94 in 1999.
Under the law, Georgia teens can lose their license if they are suspended from school for threatening a teacher, have drugs or weapons on campus or have more than 10 unexcused absences in a semester.
Fifteen-year-olds may get a learner's permit only if they are enrolled in school and not under suspension.
Sixteen- and 17-year-olds may get a conditional license that bars them from driving late at night and limits the number of young passengers they may carry. At 18, they can get an unrestricted license if their record is clean.
Officials say the law had an impact almost immediately because for Georgia's youngest motorists, irresponsible driving is more of a killer than drunk driving.
"The real problem [with alcohol] is when they get to be 18 or 19, and it builds up until they are 24," said Angie Rios, a statistician with the Governor's Office of Highway Safety. "The problem that the very youngest drivers have is speed. They drive too fast."
Rios said the data shows that since the Teenage and Adult Driver Responsibilities Act was implemented, 18-year-olds have become the most dangerous drivers in Georgia.
In 1999, the fatality rate for drivers age 18 was 104 per 100,000 licensed drivers, compared to 64 per 100,000 for 16-year-olds.
Rios also said that young Georgia drivers are at greater risk of crashing on rural roads than on metropolitan streets.
In 1999, 20 fatalities occurred in crashes involving drivers age 16 in rural counties, for a calculated fatality rate of 82 per 100,000 drivers. Meanwhile, 10 drivers age 16 in the five metro Atlanta counties died during during that same period, for a calculated fatality rate of 45 per 100,000 drivers.
Efforts at making teen driving safer in Georgia didn't stop in 1997.
A new law went into effect last month requiring buyers of kegs of beer to leave their names and addresses and sign an acknowledgement that the state's drinking age is 21.
Georgia and Florida licenses recently were rated among the top five favorites to copy because they're easier, according to a USA Today report using information from teenagers, police and bartenders. Offenders can be cited with a misdemeanor for the misuse of a fake ID, usually punishable by a fine or community service.
Richmond County, Ga., Lt. William Manecke contrasted the one hologram on Georgia IDs with South Carolina's multiple holograms, which go across the entire ID.
"Naturally it would be harder to duplicate," he said of the South Carolina license.
Earlier this year, a teen driving law pushed by Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor also was adopted by the General Assembly. It moved the teen curfew to 11 p.m. from 1 a.m., required 40 hours of driver's education and further limited the number of passengers teens can drive with from three to two.
Gov. Roy Barnes has said he'd like to raise the driving age throughout the state to 17. An attempt to increase the age in the Atlanta area was defeated on the last day of the General Assembly, but the governor said he hopes to revive the effort next year. …