Newly licensed driver Jack Goldfried, 17, of Dix Hills, outside his...

Newly licensed driver Jack Goldfried, 17, of Dix Hills, outside his home and behind the wheel of the Mazda CX-5 that he drives. When he passed his road test in August, he had never been in a car with a driving instructor. Credit: Rick Kopstein

For 16-year-old Molly Cohen, of Syosset, passing her road test next week would mean newfound freedom — and profound responsibility.

Fueled by social media, the rising high school senior said, there’s an idea of “summer being this place where you roll down the windows in the car, you blast music on the highway, you’re going to the beach,” Cohen said. She added: “Everyone tries so hard to keep that, that a lot of teens forget that you still have to be careful.”

Her caution isn’t unwarranted.

Last year was Long Island’s deadliest for young people behind the wheel in the 11 years state data is readily available — with 32 fatal crashes involving young drivers, defined as 16 to 20 years old — according to preliminary statistics compiled by the Albany-based Institute for Traffic Safety Management & Research. The previous high was 29 fatal crashes in 2015, with the average annual number at 22.45.

New York also set a statewide record high for fatal crashes among young drivers at 122, according to the preliminary statistics, which go back to 2013. The previous record, 120, was in 2013.

Motor vehicle crashes long have been the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The latest surge comes after the state adopted an honor system of sorts starting during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which allowed teens’ families, instead of instructors, to certify that in-vehicle practice hours had been completed. The surge also comes amid a broad spike in speeding that started during the pandemic and became an “epidemic” of its own, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. 

The 32 crashes last year involving young drivers caused 33 deaths, including eight young drivers. Since 2013, there have been 251 fatal crashes on the Island involving young drivers that have killed 288 people, the statistics show.

“You are giving kids keys to a rocket ship,” said Syosset High’s driver’s ed program director, Richard Faber, who’s taught Long Island teens for over three decades. He added: “You’re asking a 17-year-old whose brain is not entirely developed to multitask at the highest level.”

Alec Slatky, a spokesman for AAA Northeast, a driver’s advocacy organization with 6.5 million members in the division, said that although the crash numbers for 2023 haven’t been finalized, he’s never seen them go down, only up.

“The numbers are preliminary, but there’s little doubt that driving on the roads is alarmingly unsafe for teen drivers — and, really, for everyone,” he said.

The crash risk is highest among teen drivers than any age group, the CDC says; the fatal crash rate per mile driven is nearly three times the rate of older drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry group.

Eric Alexander, director of the Northport-based planning group Vision Long Island, thinks it’s worth assessing the correlation between the less strict driver’s ed that teens got during the pandemic and their ability to navigate dangerous roads.

“Common sense tells you that practical experience — being behind the wheel in a safe environment with a driving instructor who has a brake and a steering wheel with him or her while they’re testing around the neighborhood — that actual practical tactile experience certainly will change your behavior out of the gate,” he said.

Though the data is preliminary, unlike with crashes involving young drivers, overall fatal crashes across drivers of all ages were actually lower than some previous years. That’s true on the Island, too, where there were 199 fatal crashes in 2023, compared with 228 in 2022 and 218 in 2021, though still more than the first year before the pandemic, when there were 175.

If Cohen passes her road test, she would become one of what an analysis of DMV records shows is roughly 86,000 young drivers 16 to 20 on Long Island with a valid license. Until she turns 17 in September, her license would come with Island-specific restrictions, such as driving only during the daytime except under certain conditions, like heading to a job.

Completing an approved driver's ed course entitles a 17-year-old to get a full license, as opposed to waiting until age 18 without driver’s ed.

In New York State, driver’s ed programs require at least 24 hours of classroom instruction and 24 hours of in-vehicle instruction — six behind the wheel, and 18 observing in a teacher-supervised vehicle, according to the DMV website.

Across New York, a cohort of young drivers on the road now were exempted by the state from in-person instruction and instructor-supervised practice in vehicles during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down school buildings in 2020, the state began to allow “flexibilities.” Students who had completed at least 75% of their driver’s ed course were able to finish the rest online, according to a memo from March of that year issued by the state Education Department. By August 2020, students were allowed to do their in-vehicle driving hours under the supervision of a parent or guardian who has a driver’s license, instead of under an instructor, according to a follow-up memo from the department.

The pandemic exceptions lasted almost three years — expiring on June 30, 2023.

When Jack Goldfried, 17 of Dix Hills, passed his road test in August, he had never been in a vehicle with a driving instructor. He took his driver’s ed classes virtually from his bedroom,  where the walls are decked out in Atlanta Falcons stickers. His school, Half Hollow Hills East, was back in-person, as were all his other classes. (Fall 2022, when Goldfried took the class, was the last semester of online driver’s ed in the Half Hollow Hills district, spokesman Charles Parker said.)

Goldfried said online instruction was redundant and unmotivating.

“Just some way to get us behind the wheel with an instructor would be nice,” he said.

Casey Sara, 18, who graduated last month from Roslyn High School, also took driver’s ed under the pandemic rules. Based on her and her friends’ experiences, she said, virtual instruction was unsound.

“It was up to the kid if they actually wanted to pay attention during it,” Sara said.

Faber, the Syosset instructor, is skeptical that every kid in New York actually did the driving hours claimed.

“It’s just a signature, so do we really know these kids are driving 50 hours?” Faber said. “No. They’re not driving 50 hours.”

Asked about claims that not all student drivers actually completed practice hours under the exceptions made starting during the pandemic, DMV spokesman Walter McClure wrote in an email: “While some common sense accommodations to pre-licensing requirements were made during the height of the pandemic, we are confident that the road test properly evaluated the skills those drivers needed to have in order to pass and become licensed drivers.”

When young drivers have gotten into fatal crashes on the Island, the most predominant contributing factor attributed to the drivers by crash investigators was unsafe speed, according to an analysis of institute statistics back to 2013. The runner-up: failure to yield right of way; followed by improper lane changes and passing; disregarding a traffic control device; and driver inattention/distraction.

The presence of other young passengers without an adult in the vehicle makes crashes more likely. 

An analysis by AAA covering 2016 through 2019 found that drivers ages 16 and 17 were twice as likely to die in a crash when there were two or more teen passengers.

“The more teens you add with no adult, the worse and worse the risk gets,” Slatky said.

Faber said: “The minute they hop on a conversation that’s not related to driving, they’re gonna be in trouble.”

Their risk of death was lowest when an adult passenger, age 35 to 64, was in the vehicle.

Cohen and fellow Syosset High student Brandon Gerosa took driver's ed at Friends Academy in Locust Valley — the lessons at their school were filled — and were eager to learn to drive. They practiced with a chatty instructor, who played music and told colorful stories from the passenger seat.

“I think once he was talking about his favorite ice cream place,” Cohen said, “but in a way that’s like his strategy, to kind of teach you to get your mind off other stuff” and get them used to driving with distractions.

Goldfried said he’s mindful of the increased danger posed by having passengers along for the ride.

“I couldn’t deal with it if something happened to my friends as well,” he said.

Statistics from the institute also show a notable imbalance — statewide and on Long Island — in crash statistics between male and female young drivers. Among the most jarring: While 54 fatal crashes on the Island between 2013 and preliminary statistics into this year involved young female drivers, 206 involved young male drivers.

“I think girls tend to have a more cautious attitude and focus more on the rules and the dangers,” Cohen said.

Simon Miyerov, founder of Brooklyn-based Drive Rite Academy, which provides instructors to Long Island schools, said he’s long noticed that male students tend to take more risks.

“We’re a bit more strict on the guys than the ladies,” Miyerov said.

According to the AAA analysis, there was a greater risk of death when male teens drove with one teen passenger compared with none. This greater risk did not exist for female teen drivers. The presence of multiple teen passengers increased the risk of death for all teen drivers — for both male and female drivers.

Unsafe speed was already the top contributing factor to fatal crashes for all drivers, including young ones.

The pandemic era made speeding worse.

When most people stayed home, said Slatky from AAA, empty roads encouraged faster speeds.

“A switch seemed to flip in the minds of a lot of drivers,” Slatky said, “and they haven’t returned to their regular habits in terms of who’s speeding.”

Gerosa, Sara and Goldfried all said that for their peers, speeding is the first driving safety rule to go out the window.

“Everybody speeds,” Goldfried said. “It’s just a matter of the degree to which you do it.”

Gerosa remembers a session in junior year health class in which firefighters brought the students outside, where they were met by a wrecked car: the rear lights were smashed, a door missing. He described how cold it was outside and how silent his classmates were, just looking at it.

“It just kind of brought us into the reality that it does exist and it can happen to us,” Gerosa said.

He also remembers that after that week, no one really mentioned it again.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to really stick,” he said, “until it happens to someone.”

For 16-year-old Molly Cohen, of Syosset, passing her road test next week would mean newfound freedom — and profound responsibility.

Fueled by social media, the rising high school senior said, there’s an idea of “summer being this place where you roll down the windows in the car, you blast music on the highway, you’re going to the beach,” Cohen said. She added: “Everyone tries so hard to keep that, that a lot of teens forget that you still have to be careful.”

Her caution isn’t unwarranted.

Last year was Long Island’s deadliest for young people behind the wheel in the 11 years state data is readily available — with 32 fatal crashes involving young drivers, defined as 16 to 20 years old — according to preliminary statistics compiled by the Albany-based Institute for Traffic Safety Management & Research. The previous high was 29 fatal crashes in 2015, with the average annual number at 22.45.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • 2023 was Long Island’s deadliest since at least 2013 for young people behind the wheel, with 32 fatal crashes, according to preliminary statistics.
  • A top contributing factor to those crashes: speeding.
  • ‘Flexibilities’ for driver’s ed — announced by the state starting in 2020 during the pandemic and continuing until June 30, 2023 — allowed parents, instead of professional instructors, to oversee and certify student drivers’ practice hours behind the wheel.

New York also set a statewide record high for fatal crashes among young drivers at 122, according to the preliminary statistics, which go back to 2013. The previous record, 120, was in 2013.

Motor vehicle crashes long have been the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The latest surge comes after the state adopted an honor system of sorts starting during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which allowed teens’ families, instead of instructors, to certify that in-vehicle practice hours had been completed. The surge also comes amid a broad spike in speeding that started during the pandemic and became an “epidemic” of its own, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. 

The 32 crashes last year involving young drivers caused 33 deaths, including eight young drivers. Since 2013, there have been 251 fatal crashes on the Island involving young drivers that have killed 288 people, the statistics show.

“You are giving kids keys to a rocket ship,” said Syosset High’s driver’s ed program director, Richard Faber, who’s taught Long Island teens for over three decades. He added: “You’re asking a 17-year-old whose brain is not entirely developed to multitask at the highest level.”

Alec Slatky, a spokesman for AAA Northeast, a driver’s advocacy organization with 6.5 million members in the division, said that although the crash numbers for 2023 haven’t been finalized, he’s never seen them go down, only up.

“The numbers are preliminary, but there’s little doubt that driving on the roads is alarmingly unsafe for teen drivers — and, really, for everyone,” he said.

The crash risk is highest among teen drivers than any age group, the CDC says; the fatal crash rate per mile driven is nearly three times the rate of older drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry group.

Eric Alexander, director of the Northport-based planning group Vision Long Island, thinks it’s worth assessing the correlation between the less strict driver’s ed that teens got during the pandemic and their ability to navigate dangerous roads.

“Common sense tells you that practical experience — being behind the wheel in a safe environment with a driving instructor who has a brake and a steering wheel with him or her while they’re testing around the neighborhood — that actual practical tactile experience certainly will change your behavior out of the gate,” he said.

Though the data is preliminary, unlike with crashes involving young drivers, overall fatal crashes across drivers of all ages were actually lower than some previous years. That’s true on the Island, too, where there were 199 fatal crashes in 2023, compared with 228 in 2022 and 218 in 2021, though still more than the first year before the pandemic, when there were 175.

‘Flexibilities’ for driver’s ed rules

If Cohen passes her road test, she would become one of what an analysis of DMV records shows is roughly 86,000 young drivers 16 to 20 on Long Island with a valid license. Until she turns 17 in September, her license would come with Island-specific restrictions, such as driving only during the daytime except under certain conditions, like heading to a job.

Completing an approved driver's ed course entitles a 17-year-old to get a full license, as opposed to waiting until age 18 without driver’s ed.

In New York State, driver’s ed programs require at least 24 hours of classroom instruction and 24 hours of in-vehicle instruction — six behind the wheel, and 18 observing in a teacher-supervised vehicle, according to the DMV website.

Across New York, a cohort of young drivers on the road now were exempted by the state from in-person instruction and instructor-supervised practice in vehicles during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down school buildings in 2020, the state began to allow “flexibilities.” Students who had completed at least 75% of their driver’s ed course were able to finish the rest online, according to a memo from March of that year issued by the state Education Department. By August 2020, students were allowed to do their in-vehicle driving hours under the supervision of a parent or guardian who has a driver’s license, instead of under an instructor, according to a follow-up memo from the department.

The pandemic exceptions lasted almost three years — expiring on June 30, 2023.

When Jack Goldfried, 17 of Dix Hills, passed his road test in August, he had never been in a vehicle with a driving instructor. He took his driver’s ed classes virtually from his bedroom,  where the walls are decked out in Atlanta Falcons stickers. His school, Half Hollow Hills East, was back in-person, as were all his other classes. (Fall 2022, when Goldfried took the class, was the last semester of online driver’s ed in the Half Hollow Hills district, spokesman Charles Parker said.)

Goldfried said online instruction was redundant and unmotivating.

“Just some way to get us behind the wheel with an instructor would be nice,” he said.

Casey Sara, 18, who graduated last month from Roslyn High School, also took driver’s ed under the pandemic rules. Based on her and her friends’ experiences, she said, virtual instruction was unsound.

“It was up to the kid if they actually wanted to pay attention during it,” Sara said.

Faber, the Syosset instructor, is skeptical that every kid in New York actually did the driving hours claimed.

“It’s just a signature, so do we really know these kids are driving 50 hours?” Faber said. “No. They’re not driving 50 hours.”

Asked about claims that not all student drivers actually completed practice hours under the exceptions made starting during the pandemic, DMV spokesman Walter McClure wrote in an email: “While some common sense accommodations to pre-licensing requirements were made during the height of the pandemic, we are confident that the road test properly evaluated the skills those drivers needed to have in order to pass and become licensed drivers.”

Factors in crashes

When young drivers have gotten into fatal crashes on the Island, the most predominant contributing factor attributed to the drivers by crash investigators was unsafe speed, according to an analysis of institute statistics back to 2013. The runner-up: failure to yield right of way; followed by improper lane changes and passing; disregarding a traffic control device; and driver inattention/distraction.

The presence of other young passengers without an adult in the vehicle makes crashes more likely. 

An analysis by AAA covering 2016 through 2019 found that drivers ages 16 and 17 were twice as likely to die in a crash when there were two or more teen passengers.

“The more teens you add with no adult, the worse and worse the risk gets,” Slatky said.

Faber said: “The minute they hop on a conversation that’s not related to driving, they’re gonna be in trouble.”

Their risk of death was lowest when an adult passenger, age 35 to 64, was in the vehicle.

Cohen and fellow Syosset High student Brandon Gerosa took driver's ed at Friends Academy in Locust Valley — the lessons at their school were filled — and were eager to learn to drive. They practiced with a chatty instructor, who played music and told colorful stories from the passenger seat.

“I think once he was talking about his favorite ice cream place,” Cohen said, “but in a way that’s like his strategy, to kind of teach you to get your mind off other stuff” and get them used to driving with distractions.

Goldfried said he’s mindful of the increased danger posed by having passengers along for the ride.

“I couldn’t deal with it if something happened to my friends as well,” he said.

Male, female driver imbalance

Statistics from the institute also show a notable imbalance — statewide and on Long Island — in crash statistics between male and female young drivers. Among the most jarring: While 54 fatal crashes on the Island between 2013 and preliminary statistics into this year involved young female drivers, 206 involved young male drivers.

“I think girls tend to have a more cautious attitude and focus more on the rules and the dangers,” Cohen said.

Molly Cohen, 16, of Syosset, hopes to pass her road...

Molly Cohen, 16, of Syosset, hopes to pass her road test later this month. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Simon Miyerov, founder of Brooklyn-based Drive Rite Academy, which provides instructors to Long Island schools, said he’s long noticed that male students tend to take more risks.

“We’re a bit more strict on the guys than the ladies,” Miyerov said.

According to the AAA analysis, there was a greater risk of death when male teens drove with one teen passenger compared with none. This greater risk did not exist for female teen drivers. The presence of multiple teen passengers increased the risk of death for all teen drivers — for both male and female drivers.

Speeding soars

Unsafe speed was already the top contributing factor to fatal crashes for all drivers, including young ones.

The pandemic era made speeding worse.

When most people stayed home, said Slatky from AAA, empty roads encouraged faster speeds.

“A switch seemed to flip in the minds of a lot of drivers,” Slatky said, “and they haven’t returned to their regular habits in terms of who’s speeding.”

Gerosa, Sara and Goldfried all said that for their peers, speeding is the first driving safety rule to go out the window.

“Everybody speeds,” Goldfried said. “It’s just a matter of the degree to which you do it.”

Gerosa remembers a session in junior year health class in which firefighters brought the students outside, where they were met by a wrecked car: the rear lights were smashed, a door missing. He described how cold it was outside and how silent his classmates were, just looking at it.

“It just kind of brought us into the reality that it does exist and it can happen to us,” Gerosa said.

He also remembers that after that week, no one really mentioned it again.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to really stick,” he said, “until it happens to someone.”

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