Since Kindergarten, they had been known as "the crew." Still a close-knit group in high school, the five Henderson, Nev., boys were all delighted when Sean Larimer turned 16 and in 2003 became the first to get his driver's license. Sean's mom, Susan Larimer, a hospital nurse who was in the midst of a divorce, was happy about it too. "I thought I needed him to drive," she recalls. So Susan gave her son permission to drive around with the crew one evening just 63 days after he passed his road test.
As was customary during his outings with friends, Susan and Sean checked in with each other by cell phone several times. But while awaiting his return, Susan dozed off. Just after 1 a.m., the phone startled her awake with the news every parent of a teen dreads. Her son had smashed her '98 Pontiac Grand Am and was in the hospital's trauma unit. Three of the boys in the car had been killed, the fourth injured. Sean, who had been drinking heavily at a party that night (reportedly as much as eight beers in an hour), served two years in juvenile lockup for driving under the influence of alcohol and reckless driving. He cannot get his license back until he turns 21. Susan, shaken by the tragedy and determined to spare other young drivers and their parents similar agony, has lobbied state lawmakers to make the licensing process for teen drivers lengthier and more safety conscious. "I'm not making excuses for his choice to drink," she says. "But if we had tougher laws"--like prohibiting newly licensed teens from transporting other minors--"Sean would not have been out driving with his friends that night." In October 2005, Nevada put in place a graduated licensing law, which phases in driving privileges as teens gain experience and maturity.
Getting a driver's license remains a signal milestone for teens in their impatient journey toward adulthood--and for their parents, eager to liberate themselves from constant chauffeuring duties. But car crashes are the main cause of death for U.S. teenagers, killing about 6,000 drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 each year. That's more fatalities for this age group than those caused by guns and drug overdoses combined. And the younger and less experienced the driver, the worse the danger. Drivers ages 16 to 19 have a fatality rate four times as high as that of drivers 25 to 29.
Experts say that parents who assume that simply reminding their kids to buckle up and watch the speed limit miss the central problem: the adolescent brain may be unable to handle the responsibilities of driving. Researchers with the National Institute of Mental Health have shown that the parts of the brain that weigh risks, make judgments and control impulsive behavior are still developing through the teen years and don't mature until about age 25.