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. Its a statistic the legislator is zealous
I saw these young people perishing because of what I
thought was inexperience (behind the wheel), Berger
told Stateline.org. 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, Bergers bill would require
Wyoming teens to earn full driving privileges incrementally
in what is known as a graduated drivers license. Since
the early 1990s more than 38 states have imposed some type
of graduated drivers 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
theyre 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 whos
been lost because of a crash, and I think thats 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 whos 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 hes
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 states teen licensing law.
Many teens feel that they are invulnerable. We know
theyre inexperienced drivers, and theyre highly
distracted by peers in the car, Mandel told Stateline.org.
In Wyoming, safety advocates are hoping the third time will
be the charm. A graduated drivers license system failed
to gain legislative approval twice before.
Wyoming is a pretty conservative state, a pretty traditional
state, and they dont adopt change just because its
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 years 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 years 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 dont 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 doesnt fit