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New license law seems to save teen lives

March 10, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

The year after Pennsylvania's new teen driving law took effect in December 1999, the number of 16-year-olds killed on the roads dropped by more than half, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia are among nearly 40 states with some form of graduated driver's license program.

Studies have shown that giving 16-and 17-year-olds substantial time behind the wheel with an adult in the passenger seat before they can get a junior license and drive alone saves lives.

A 2002 study by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation shows the number of crashes involving 16-year-old drivers dropped 27 percent, from 6,274 to 4,557, between December 1999 and December 2000. The number of fatalities dropped 58 percent, from 60 to 25, in the same period.

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The new law requires 16- and 17-year-olds to have six months and 50 hours driving time with an adult over 21 to build their skills before they can apply for a junior license and drive on their own. Parents must certify that their children have met the mandates.

The old law required 30 days driving with an adult.

Teens with junior licenses are subject to a 90-day suspension for an accumulation of six points or more or if they are convicted of exceeding the speed limit by 26 miles per hour, said Joan Z. Nissley, spokeswoman for PennDOT's south-central regional office in Harrisburg, Pa. The law also sets a curfew of 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. for 16- and 17-year olds with junior driver's licenses, she said.

Any teens can get an adult unrestricted license once they become 18.

Even with the new law, some law enforcement officials think 16 is too young for most teens to drive.

"We all mature differently," said Trooper Ed Asbury, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Police in Chambersburg, Pa., who favors raising the minimum driving age to 18. "It's a great responsibility that we're giving to 16-year-olds. We're giving them a 2,000-pound vehicle and telling them to go as fast as they want."

Asbury said the state's graduated driver's license program does help.

Greg Chandler heads the driver's education program at Waynesboro Area Senior High School. Every year, he teaches about 325 sophomores the basics of driving in 30 hours of classroom instruction. Most can't wait to get on the road, he said. They apply for their learner's permit as soon as they become 16. They get their junior license as soon as they meet the six-month, 50-hour requirements.

Traffic accidents are the number one killer of teenagers, Chandler said.

"It's hard to turn your back on that fact," he said. "This new law will give them more experience before they go out on their own. Many teens have accidents in the first three months because they don't have the experience. Hopefully, the law will help."

Derek Shaffer, 17, was one of Chandler's students. He got his junior license as soon as he completed the six-month learner's program.

"All my friends got theirs as soon as they could, too," said Shaffer, who drives a 1993 Nissan Sentra.

"Driving gives me a lot of freedom, but it's a lot of responsibility," he said, noting the he favors the law, which gave him time to get some practical on-the-road experience with an adult.

"I thought it was a little unfair at first," he said. "My older brother got his license right away, but looking back on it I realize now that I'm better off because I learned a few things."

Shaffer said the driving test to get his license was so simple, "it made me wonder who they let on the road."

"I know six kids who got into accidents, including three of my close friends," he said. "Mostly, they were going too fast."

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