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States want to improve driving safety for teens

By Erin Madigan

Wyoming state Rep. Rosie Berger (R) is tired of losing teenagers to traffic fatalities. Over the past 18 months, 13 teenagers from her district – Sheridan County – died in car accidents. It’s a statistic the legislator is zealous to reduce.

“I saw these young people perishing because of what I thought was inexperience (behind the wheel),” Berger told “I thought, ‘What can we do as policymakers to prevent this from happening again?’ ”

Berger is one of dozens of state lawmakers across the country who thinks the answer to reducing thousands of teen traffic deaths each year is to strengthen restrictions on inexperienced, novice drivers. In 2002, 8,278 15 to 20-year-olds died in traffic crashes nationally, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among this age group.

Along with other restrictions, Berger’s bill would require Wyoming teens to earn full driving privileges incrementally in what is known as a graduated driver’s license. Since the early 1990s more than 38 states have imposed some type of graduated driver’s license.

Recently, legislatures have begun to strengthen the framework of their graduated license systems by proposing even stricter rules, such as reducing the nighttime hours teen drivers are allowed on the road, limiting the number of peers a teen driver can carry and banning teens from talking on cell phones when they’re behind the wheel, said Melissa Savage, a transportation policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We all know a tragic story of a young person who’s been lost because of a crash, and I think that’s part of the reason this is gaining momentum,” said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. “These measures are something state legislatures can do that can save a lot of lives, and who’s not for that?”

Half of the states already have teen passenger limit laws on the books, and at least 16 states will consider such legislation this year, according to recent AAA data. California was the first state to impose significant teen passenger restrictions in 1999, and teen deaths and injuries in the Golden State have dropped 23 percent, AAA said.

Only two states – Maine and New Jersey – currently ban cell phone use by teen drivers, but experts watching the issue expect anti-cell phone legislation to boom in 2004.

In Colorado, for example, state Rep. Michael Garcia (D), who has pushed unsuccessfully to require all drivers to use hands-free cell phone equipment when driving, is now sponsoring a bill that would ban cell phone use by novice drivers. He said he’s cautiously optimistic about the bill because he has support from the National Transportation Safety Board, but he does expect opposition in the legislature. Similar measures have been introduced in Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Maryland is also considering strengthening its existing restrictions on teen drivers. State Rep. Adrienne Mandel (D) proposed legislation that would prohibit newly licensed drivers from carrying other passengers under 18 years old for the first six months. She said passenger limits would fill a “glaring gap” in the state’s teen licensing law.

“Many teens feel that they are invulnerable. We know they’re inexperienced drivers, and they’re highly distracted by peers in the car,” Mandel told

In Wyoming, safety advocates are hoping the third time will be the charm. A graduated driver’s license system failed to gain legislative approval twice before.

“Wyoming is a pretty conservative state, a pretty traditional state, and they don’t adopt change just because it’s a good thing to do,” said Lorrie Pozarik, director of a non-profit advocacy group called Injury Prevention Resources of Wyoming and a supporter of teen driving restrictions.

Pozarik said much of last year’s opposition in the largely rural state came from legislators concerned that the rules would impede personal freedom and make it even more difficult for farm and ranch kids to get to work, church or school.

But Rep. Berger said this year’s legislation makes exceptions, with parental or school approval, for teens who need to drive to work or school.

Wyoming state Rep. Elaine Harvey (R) is opposed to the legislation and said targeting illegal activities such as drug and alcohol abuse would be more effective in reducing teen deaths.

“You have the kids who don’t want to take responsibility for their actions, however this law is not going to change their actions much,” Harvey said. “I think that if we were in a more urban setting, there would be just cause for this. But in our very rural setting it doesn’t fit Wyoming citizens.”