Thursday, December 26, 2002

Teens worry about proposed increase in driving age

Published in the Current

Secretary of State Dan Gwadosky is looking to increase restrictions on teenage drivers to improve road safety in Maine, but driving schools and driving students aren’t happy with what he has proposed.

Gwadosky would like to discuss with the public and legislators the possibility of increasing the driving age from 16 to 17; banning teens from driving between midnight and 5 a.m.; extending the length of time new drivers must hold learner’s permits before they can get their licenses; extending the ban on carrying passengers for an additional three months; and mandatory license suspensions for teenage drivers who get traffic tickets.

Gwadosky, armed with statistics indicating one teenage driving fatality every 10 days in the state, and 60 injured teens during the same amount of time, met with the Maine Legislative Youth Advisory Council early this month to discuss ways to make teenagers safer when driving.

He told the Current speed, inattention and driver distraction were all common factors in crashes involving teen drivers.

Gwadosky said he is “trying to find the best way to address those issues through legislation,” and the proposals are preliminary.

“I think it’s unlikely we’ll advance all of them to the Legislature,” he said.

Teens concerned
Several students in a Best-Way Driving School class, most of whom were 15 or 16, didn’t like Gwadosky’s ideas, especially raising the license age to 17.

Jacqueline Schmidt, in the minutes before she started her learner’s permit test, said she likes being able to get her license earlier rather than later, but she realizes safety is an issue.

“There are a lot of immature people that I know,” Schmidt said. Some of them, she said, should pay more attention to what they’re doing when they’re behind the wheel.

The real crunch, she said, comes when teens are 18 and have graduated from high school. Then, to get back and forth to work or college, they need a license.

“Once you graduate, you really need to be able to drive,” Schmidt said.

Before that, there are buses to and from school, and parents can often give teens rides to work and other activities, she said.

She suggested having driver education as a course in high school, which students must pass before getting their licenses.

Schmidt said she is concerned that students in driver education classes now might be forced to wait to get their licenses. She said the wait makes sense for safety, but admitted she wants her license as soon as possible.

As for the proposed curfew, she thinks one from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. makes sense for students who have jobs or other activities that require them to stay out late. She also thinks it odd that a kid can get in a car and drive at age 16 but can’t drink until age 21.

“You can take someone’s life with a car,” Schmidt said.

Another student, John McDonald, also opposed raising the age limit on getting a driver’s license.

“I think that’s stupid,” said McDonald. “I don’t think that one year is going to make a difference.”

Andrea LaBonty said her parents spend a lot of time driving her around, and that will get easier when she has her license. She also hopes to get a job once she can drive to it.

Getting her license earlier, she said, would reduce the load on her parents.

LaBonty also said that nobody obeys the three-month passenger ban as it is, so extending it wouldn’t have any effect.

Dana Bennett said that if he was told he had to wait until age 17 to get his license, “I’d be pretty mad.” He also thought younger people, not yet in driver’s education, would also be “annoyed” by a new rule.

Kate Lonsdale, 17, said her brother brags about speeding. She said waiting until teens are more mature would be a good idea. Lonsdale said she may wait until she’s 18 before going for her road test.

“Driving is a big responsibility, ” she said. Some people can handle it, and others can’t, she added.

Lawmakers interested
That’s why Gwadosky wants to help teens get more experience before they get their licenses.

Six legislators have already contacted Gwadosky to express interest in sponsoring a bill that would toughen driving laws, including restricting passengers, who are an issue because some of the teens killed and injured on the roads were not driving themselves.

Teens are interested in getting their licenses, he said, but the state has to balance that with safety. Gwadosky said it is a good idea to drive through all the seasons before going for a road test. His son, now 19, did that, and his 16-year-old daughter is doing so now, he said.

The Legislative Youth Advisory Council is more willing to make changes to the permit process, Gwadosky said, than to up the licensing age.

“There’s a tremendous interest,” Gwadosky said. “A driver’s license represents freedom and independence.”

Part of that is because of the state itself. “We have no public transportation,” Gwadosky said. Additional young drivers are important for families in rural areas, but young drivers still have a lot to learn, he said.

“Getting their license isn’t the end. It should really be the beginning,” Gwadosky said.

He has tried to create an environment in the state where family members are involved in driver education, but realizes that is hard to do. “There are some things we can’t legislate,” he said.

Gwadosky and driver educators do agree that some of the requirements are not enough, but they differ on how to deal with them.

Gwadosky encourages parents to rethink their own driving habits and be good models for their teens. They should work on specific areas of driving skills and give feedback to their children, he said. “The quality of the drive time is significant,” Gwadosky said.

Driver educator Ron Vance, who owns Best-Way Driving Schools with offices and classrooms throughout Southern Maine, worries more teens will drive without a license if the law changes.

Rather than change the driving age, he suggested an increase in the number of hours teens must drive with their parents. Other states require 50 hours with parents, rather than the 35 hours Maine requires, Vance said.

“We can help reduce (teen driving deaths) with the parents’ help , ” Vance said.