Teen Drivers May Face Restrictions

Safe-driving experts argue Michigan’s restrictions on young drivers are badly in need of updating following a recent rash of high-profile crashes.

They want lawmakers to pass a measure sitting in the Legislature that would amend the state’s graduated licensing law — the tiered licensing program for teen drivers usually younger than 17 — by restricting them to a single non-family passenger, and some legislators are hoping to do so by year’s end.

Studies have shown the crash risk is three to five times greater for a teen driver with multiple passengers in the car, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Yet Michigan remains one of just eight states with no passenger restriction for young drivers and is lagging behind other states, said Nancy Cain of AAA Michigan.

“Ours were the best in the country,” Cain said. “We need to strengthen them more.”

When Michigan first adopted its graduated license law in 1996, it was among the strictest in the country, she added.

Since then, most states have surpassed Michigan with more restrictive — and demonstrably safer — laws.

Opponents, however, say such a measure takes away what should be a parental decision.

“Parents are in the best position to judge their child’s maturity level,” rather than a broad-brushing law, said Ken Silfven, spokesman for the Secretary of State, which opposes the bill.

State Rep. Richard LeBlanc, D-Westland, the bill’s sponsor, said he will push for passage this year before it expires.

If adopted, it would also prohibit cell phone use by teen drivers, as well as extend the nighttime driving curfew for learners. Police agencies and auto insurance companies have declared support for the bill.

“If you take away that (passenger) element, … it’s certain to have an effect in a positive way,” said LeBlanc, who taught drivers education part-time until four years ago.

Fatal teen collisions fell

While the number of young drivers involved in fatal collisions fell by roughly a third in Michigan and the United States between 2004 and 2008, car crashes remain the leading cause of teen deaths in the United States.

In July, a texting-while-driving ban went into effect in Michigan with hopes it will reduce accidents. However, a study released this fall by the Highway Loss Data Institute found no reduction in crashes after driver texting was banned in four states: California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington. In a surprising twist, crashes actually increased in three of the states; those involving drivers younger than 25 increased in all four states — the largest in California, by 12 percent. The drivers were not complying with the bans, researchers concluded.

“It takes time to change your pattern,” said AAA’s Cain, who likened the texting ban to new seat belt laws in the ’80s and ’90s.

Young driver safety came into focus more recently after a crash last month on US-23 in Green Oak Township killed five people, among them three Okemos High School graduates. A week later, two 22-year-old Chinese graduate students died in a crash in Arenac County. The sole Okemos survivor has since been released from the hospital.

“These things happened all at once,” said Sam Goodin, assistant dean of students at the University of Michigan, where the grad students and one Okemos victim attended school. “It’s devastating.”

Though both drivers in the crashes were too old to have been limited by a passenger restriction law had one been in place, both crashes involved multiple passengers. A passenger limit, experts say, would heighten awareness of the potential distraction of having several passengers in the car. It would also give learners a chance to hone their skills under less risky conditions.

In Michigan, graduated license holders — usually those younger than 17 — are not allowed to drive unsupervised between midnight and 5 a.m. The pending House bill would extend that curfew to 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

More significantly, it would prohibit a first-year driver from carrying more than one passenger younger than 21, family members excepted. Currently, there is no passenger restriction at all.

LeBlanc said that the exemption for family passengers has cleared much of the opposition among lawmakers. “We would not get it passed (otherwise),” LeBlanc said about the bill he introduced in the spring of 2009

via The Detroit News

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