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Not so fast

National | Forty-three states put the brakes on issuing full-privilege driver's licenses to teenagers

Issue: "Target: Taiwan," May 5, 2001

In Texas, a 16-year-old girl can stuff five friends into her car and zip down the street for a late-night pizza run. But in New Jersey, a girl of the same age can't drive after dark. Instead, she can only sit home and eyeball her new "restricted graduated" driver's license.

Many American adults remember their 16th birthday as an Independence Day: Snag that long-awaited license, grab the family car keys, and hit the road. But 43 states and the District of Columbia have in recent years implemented "graduated driver's license" (GDL) restrictions that turn what used to be a quick trip to full licensure into a journey that can last two years. Only seven states-Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, Texas, and Wyoming-have thus far said no to GDL licensing. Now some parents in holdout states are digging in their heels, telling lawmakers to leave alone the former age requirements.

"I think this is another area where the state is saying 'We know better than the parents what's best for your child,'" said Tim Lambert, a father in Lubbock, Texas, who also is a Republican National Committeeman for the state. "I think parents know better than the state when their children are ready to drive."

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In a typical graduated licensing program, teens during the six months after receiving their initial driving permits may drive only during the day and when supervised by an adult. During an intermediate stage-usually 18 months long-new teen drivers may not carry teen passengers and still must park the car at night. If the neophyte motorist remains crash- and conviction-free during that phase, he or she gets a "real" driver's license, usually at age 18.

Predictably, many teens in GDL states are unimpressed. "I think it pretty much stinks," grumbled Gian Paul Gonzalez, 17, of North Haledon, N.J., who must wait another year to drive without restrictions. "I'm sure it has protective reasoning, but I don't believe in it."

"I would not have put in an age limit," said Joshua Rothgaber, of Grantville, Pa., a 16-year-old who has driven tractors on farms for eight years. "I feel like it's punishing kids for something that someone else did."

That's one way to look at it. But insurance companies and state highway safety authorities believe historical statistics on young drivers show the usefulness of graduated licensing both for public safety and for the safety of teens themselves. Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year-olds, accounting for almost a third of all deaths in this group, according to the American Automobile Association. Both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report that 16-year-old drivers have the worst accident record of any age group. IIHS senior vice president for research Allan F. Williams blames, in part, historically "easy and quick access to full-privilege licensure" for such grim statistics.

He may be on the right track. After North Carolina introduced GDL licensure in 1997, auto safety improved dramatically among the state's 16-year-olds: By 1999, auto fatalities in that age group had dropped by nearly a third, according to the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. Night crashes among 16-year-old drivers decreased by nearly half and accidents overall fell by 26 percent.

Still, Tim Lambert believes tougher driving exams or more training hours behind the wheel are a better solution than GDL licenses. Right now Texas requires 32 classroom hours, seven driving-observation hours, and seven instructional hours behind the wheel before a 16-year-old can take home a full license. Partly because of opposition from parents like Mr. Lambert, GDL legislation has never reached the Texas Senate.

Mr. Williams concedes that graduated licensing can restrict mobility for rural teens and teens who work late. But he believes the decreased death rate is worth it, and suggests that special waivers might solve the problem for teens who need to drive to work, school, or farm-related activities. Besides, he notes, "16-year-olds are pretty adept at finding alternative ways to get to where they want to go."

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