Teen driving bill needs House OK
By LES ANDERSON
The Kansas House Transportation Committee is considering a proposal for tougher restrictions on teenage drivers. The committee must think the bill goes too far, so it has referred it to a subcommittee for revision.
Translated, that means likely alteration to a proven system of graduated driver licensing proposed in Senate Bill 294, which would bring much-needed changes in state regulations for young, inexperienced drivers.
These are facts:
— Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death, by far, for 14- to 17-year-olds, both in the state and nationwide.
— A statewide survey of both parents and their teenage drivers in Kansas shows that a majority favors a graduated driver's license system.
— Kansas is one of only four remaining states that don't have a graduated driver's license plan for new drivers. Senate Bill 294 has been approved by the Kansas Senate and sent to the House, where it was referred to the Transportation Committee, which then assigned it to the subcommittee.
Senate Bill 294 raises the age from 14 to 15 the age teens can get a learner's permit to drive to and from school and work. Fourteen-year-olds who live and work on farms can still obtain a farm permit.
The next stage — at age 16 — would restrict young drivers from driving from 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. and with more than one non-sibling under age 21. Research shows that the majority of fatal accidents involving young drivers occur after 9 p.m.
At age 16 1/2, provided the teen driver hasn't had any moving violations, he or she would be eligible for full driving privileges.
The Senate bill also prohibits the use of wireless devices — headphones and cell phones — by the young drivers. In addition, a driver's education course would be required.
In the statewide survey, parents' top concerns about their teenage drivers were the number of passengers, bad weather, using cell phones, and nighttime driving. The parents surveyed also favored a requirement that new teen drivers be required to earn unrestricted driving privileges by maintaining a violation-free driving record at least six months in order to drive without restrictions.
The researchers concluded that parents of teen drivers in Kansas are concerned about the safety of their children. It's a strongly held belief that active and appropriate involvement of parents, both in helping adolescents to learn how to drive safely and in monitoring their driving-related behavior is vital.
In an interview, Pratt County Sheriff Vernon Chinn said the most dangerous thing that people do in their daily activities is drive. Don't assume, Chinn said, that when you put that car in gear and start moving that you're going to arrive at the basketball game, the picnic in the park, school — or even back home. Driving takes your full time and attention.
And, as echoed by longtime driver's education teacher Dick Wilson of Russell, today's 14-year-olds are less mature, encounter more and more traffic, and have additional distractions — cell phones, CD players, other teenagers in the car.
In a recent driver's education class he taught at Russell High School, Wilson said he had eight students who had never been behind the wheel of a car. They didn't even know where the turn indicator was located.
In a few short weeks, he said he had to get those students ready to drive 70 mph on the interstate. Quite a feat, he added, and also frightening, not only for the young drivers but others they would encounter on the highway.
Trooper Gary Warner of the Kansas Highway Patrol and other law enforcement personnel interviewed for the study said parents often want to know what happened in an accident involving their teenage son or daughter.
"It's very difficult for us to tell them that their young driver made mistakes, and these are the mistakes that led to the crashes and, ultimately, the young person dying from injuries," Warner said.
The Senate bill doesn't need to be watered down. Contact your state representative and tell him or her that you support SB294 — an effective yet reasonable and practical graduated driver's licensing system for Kansas — as presented to the House.
Les Anderson is an associate professor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University. He has been involved in research on young driver safety in conjunction with AAA Kansas.