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Teen Drivers in New York to Face New, Tough Limits

Source: Buffalo News

Posted on 04 Jun 2009

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After languishing in the New York Assembly for months, a measure to enact tough, new restrictions on teenage drivers is poised to pass both legislative houses before the 2009 session ends later this month.

The bill's many provisions would require teens to face longer pre-license training periods and ban teen drivers from using any portable electronic devices — hand-held or otherwise.

The legislation also would reduce to one the number of non-family passengers under age 21 allowed in a car driven by a teen — a bow to findings that fatal crash rates rise sharply with every additional teen passenger in a car — and would introduce a six-month holding period between getting a permit and a license.

“The bill needs to get done, and we’re going to get it done,” said Assemblyman David Gantt, a Rochester Democrat who recently introduced the measure.

“I haven’t heard any opposition, and I expect it to pass,” added State Sen. Marin Dilan, a Brooklyn Democrat and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Safety experts in recent months have told The Buffalo News that New York has fallen far behind other states when it comes to improving laws aimed at teen driving. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers.

A less ambitious measure passed the Assembly last year but died in the Republican- led Senate over last-minute objections by some Long Island Republi- can members concerned about a requirement that back-seat passengers wear seat belts.

That provision has now been stripped from the new comprehensive bill, which was introduced by Gov. David A. Paterson’s Department of Motor Vehicles, to prevent any of last year’s problems from resurfacing this session.

“I am skeptical because of the bill being shot down last year, but I am very hopeful about it, of course,” Diane Magle said of the new bill’s chances. Magle’s daughter, Katie, was 17 in 2005 when she died as a passenger in a car driven by another teenager that struck a tree in Orchard Park.

Since then, high-profile accidents have killed teen drivers and passengers across Western New York, including the 2007 crash that claimed the lives of five Rochester-area teens and, most recently, the accident involving two Town of Pavilion sisters, Sarah and Gretchen Protulipac, who died in April when their car ran a stop sign and was broadsided by a pickup truck.

“Too many of our children are being killed,” Magle said, recalling the death of her daughter. “You just don’t want anyone to go through that, because after three and a half years, it’s just as sharp as it was the first day. It does not get better.”

The new legislation was introduced in the Senate by Dilan in March. But backers worried when Democrats in the Assembly failed to follow suit with the Democratic governor’s bill.

But Gantt, who wields enormous power over transportation bills in the 150-member Assembly, a few days ago personally introduced the measure, and Tuesday it sailed through his committee without any opposition.

“Kids are getting hurt and maimed and killed, and people are concerned about it. So, therefore, we believe we can do it,” he said of the bill’s chances.

He noted the bill is sponsored by both transportation committee chairmen in the two houses and is authored by the Paterson administration. “We agreed that we ought to get it done,” he said.

(Gantt was in the headlines recently for blocking an effort to ban texting while driving; he said he wants a more comprehensive, anti-distraction bill that would ban everything from texting to eating and changing the radio stations while driving.)

The teen driving measure also has passed through two Senate committees, including the Codes Committee on Tuesday.

Safety experts have said New York flunks the test in the number of hours teens are required to get training behind the wheel before getting their junior license. Currently, 20 hours are required for permit holders, an amount exceeded in 39 other states. The new bill would require teenagers to be trained by an adult for at least 50 hours, with 15 or more hours at night, before a road license exam could be scheduled.

In 2007, 236 people — teen drivers, their passengers or occupants of other vehicles — were killed in New York, according to Saferoads4teens Coalition, a group of safety, health care, business and insurance groups. Two-thirds of fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers were in cars with teen passengers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Institute has found.

For states like New York, acting now might save money down the road. Legislation is under consideration in Congress to strip away federal highway funding for states that do not bolster their teen driving laws. New York’s current laws would not pass muster with the federal bill.

The Paterson bill, though, would put New York into compliance, with one exception: the age at which teens in the state can get their full adult license— 17 — if they have passed a driver’s education program. The federal bill restricts a full license to only those 18 and older.

New York is one of only two states — New Hampshire is the other — where teens can get their licenses in less than six months after getting their permit. The new bill would require at least six months until a road test could be scheduled.

The pending bill offers major changes to the state’s graduated driver’s license program, an effort most states have adopted that seeks to more slowly introduce driving privileges to teens.

Besides new restrictions on the number of passengers and cell phone use and texting by teen drivers, the measure also would close loopholes that now allow teen drivers to plea-bargain moving violations. Now, teen drivers can get speeding violations reduced to nonmoving offenses, thereby avoiding having points placed on their licenses.

The bill requires that a moving violation be treated as a moving violation, with points assigned. That could affect the teen’s car insurance premiums.

“What is a person learning if they are able to get a reduction in the violation to nonmoving and not experience the sanctions associated with points?” Motor Vehicles Commissioner David Swarts told The News last month. “There are consequences for bad driving behavior, and we think tightening the plea-bargaining rules will help make the roads safer.”

Thirty-six percent of teen deaths are caused by motor vehicle accidents, and teen drivers are twice as likely to die in crashes as are adult drivers, studies show.