The ongoing debate over whether a 16-year-old is mature or skilled enough to drive a car is continuing, this time under the scrutiny of a national auto safety group.
"We have some young drivers who are very capable. Their reaction time is quicker than an adult's," said Mark Edgell, business owner and a professional trucker 32 years. "The biggest problem I see with teens is they need to stay focused."
Using a cell phone (especially texting) eating, talking to friends, and playing loud music all contribute to a lack of focus in driving and crashes, experts say.
MITCH CASEY The Marietta Times
Williamstown High School junior Mark Board enters his car following the school day Tuesday. A proposal to raise the driving age to 17 is being considered.
Recently the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research organization funded by the auto insurance industry, called on all states to hike the age for getting a driver's license to 17 or even 18.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death among teens and the group says that raising the driving age saves lives.
Edgell, owner of Edgell-Jackson Trucking on Ohio 7, has three adult children and has helped each learn to drive at 16. Edgell isn't sold on the idea of hiking the licensing age.
"I think to increase the driver's license age to 17 wouldn't help matters any," he said.
According to the National Highway Administration, more than 5,000 U.S. teens die each year in car crashes. The rate of crashes, fatal and nonfatal, per mile driven for 16-year-old drivers is almost 10 times the rate for driver ages 30 to 59, reports show.
Safety experts think the death rate can be reduced, just by giving teenagers another year to mature.
"We have some young drivers who are very capable, but some drive too fast," Edgell said. "Some older drivers drive too slow. There is no rhyme or reason to it."
When an 80,000-pound truck is on the highway, a 3,500-pound car is no match for it, he said. Most people, especially teens with little driving experience, don't recognize the danger.
"Teens can do fine, but the main thing is to keep a clear head and keep the vehicle under control," Edgell said.
In New Jersey, teens do not get a driver's license until 17. Studies have shown that the overall rate of teens killed in vehicle crashes in New Jersey has been consistently lower than in states where 16 is the required age.
In recent weeks this region has suffered a string of serious car crashes where young drivers were at the wheel.
Two teens died in Belpre in August when the unlicensed driver lost control in early morning hours, while a second crash on Jennings Hill Road earlier this month, caused numerous injuries to teens when the teen driver also lost control of the car and went off the road. There were no fatalities in this crash.
"I knew some of the kids involved in the Jennings Hill accident," said Norma Schob, a driver's education instructor in Marietta since 1981. "Their parents didn't know they were in the car."
Schob said changing the licensing age from 16 to 17 should be given a chance.
"At least for three years to see how it works out," she said. "Give it a little chance. Statistics could be checked after that to see if it has made a difference."
She understands that many parents simply don't have the time to chauffeur their teens to school activities or sports practices.
"It's a lot easier when the kids can drive," she said.
Students in her driver's education class talk about the consequences of poor judgment and bad driving skills.
"I've had former students who lost their lives in accidents and had one young man paralyzed for life. But, kids don't realize you don't always die in an accident," Schob said. "Kids think they are invincible."
Still, for teens, waiting an additional year for a driver's license - often considered a rite of passage - is a tough sell.
Williamstown High School students Mark Board, 17, and Bobby Stanley, 17, both play sports and because of after-school practices and carrying bulky equipment, must drive to school every day.
"Some people are mature enough to drive at 16, others are not," Board, a football player from Waverly, W.Va., said. "I rode with my brother part-time last year, but this year I'm driving myself. You've got to set rules in the car if others are riding with you."
Stanley, of Boaz, W.VA., a soccer player, agrees with leaving the licensing age 16, but likes the idea of certain "restrictions" for student drivers.
"I like that there is a curfew of 11 p.m. and that younger drivers aren't allowed to use a cell phone," Stanley said. "I also like that only two people (outside family) can ride with you."
Graduated licensing, which has become standard across the country in the past decade, requires teens to spend more time driving with a parent or other responsible adult before they go solo. Though these rules are sometimes difficult to enforce, many states tie more stringent standards to declining teen crash rates.
In Ohio, teens must be 15 1/2 years old to get a learner's permit and must hold that permit at least six months before taking a driver's license examination. He or she must be 16 to take the driver's license examination.
If the driver has a permit, only the parent, legal guardian, or driver instructor may ride in the car with him, and if the licensed driver is under 18, all passengers must wear a seat belt, according to Bill Ollom, a driver's examiner with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, District 7 post at Marietta.
The Associated Press contributed.