Legislature hoping tougher laws for new drivers curb accidents
KEN DIXON email@example.com
Sixteen-year-old Dan West of Stratford, training for that all-important license test, thinks the state's new midnight curfew for drivers under 18 is arbitrary and will be more of a hindrance than a safety aid.
Jennifer de Regt of Trumbull, also 16, who just passed the test and got her license, thinks the state's expanded on-the-road-training requirements are overkill. "If you space out your hours and practice at home, too, I don't think the extra training is necessary," de Regt said. Still, West, de Regt and other teens say they'll deal with the new hurdles — and whatever else it takes — for the coveted piece of plastic that puts them behind the wheel and brings them to the threshold of adulthood.
Last year, the state Legislature approved the midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew and expanded on-the-road-training requirements for 16- and 17-year-olds. The changes took effect Oct. 1.
The Connecticut Department of Labor allows youths under 18 to work until midnight in some jobs — like recreation, amusements or theater — provided it's during school vacations or the day worked is not before a school day.
State lawmakers say they likely won't introduce more restrictions for young drivers during this short, 12-week session. They first want to wait to see how the new laws are working.
"We've done a lot in the last few years on these issues," Speaker of the House James A. Amann, D-Milford, said.
Still, a recent AAA report showed that before the state's 2005 restrictions, Connecticut was above the national average in teen-driver fatalities.
It found that in the 10 years ending in 2004, there were 30,917 collisions across the country involving 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds. Teen drivers died in 36.2 percent of the crashes. Passengers died in 31.8 percent of cases.
In Connecticut, the AAA report shows that in 2004, 78 teen drivers were killed in accidents — more than 40 percent of the statewide total of 191. The state with the highest teen driver death rate, according to the AAA study was North Dakota, with 51 percent. Arizona had the lowest rate of teen driver deaths, 25.5 percent. Both New York and Massachusetts had lower percentages of teen-driver deaths than Connecticut, with 33.7 percent and 38 percent respectively.
Ralph J. Carpenter, state motor vehicles commissioner, said he is pleased that the General Assembly adopted national AAA Auto Club recommendations for young drivers last year.
"I think that this study shows Connecticut to be ahead of the curve and far-thinking in its approach to training teens to drive and giving them time to adjust to the demands that drivers face every day on the road," Carpenter said.
However, some say there's more work to be done, with calls for the Legislature to require ramped-up enforcement of traffic laws and require verification of young drivers' on-the-road training.
Sen. Bill Finch, D-Bridgeport, vice chairman of the Transportation Committee, said statistics show that inexperienced teenagers in today's heavier, faster vehicles, combined with Connecticut's traffic mess, can spell disaster.
"I think that we've made tremendous progress in the last few years," Finch said. "It's not easy because sometimes you get a lot of parents who say, 'You're going too far.' But if it's on your watch and there's carnage on the road, there's no choice."
Finch said the Legislature is unlikely to take up additional bills during the session that ends May 3.
"We are a national leader and have pushed the envelope as far as we can right now," Finch said.
Joyce Howe, owner of the Howe Driving School in Stratford and Monroe, said last week that she thinks the midnight curfew is a good idea. Curfew requirements exempt teens who are driving to work or church functions.
However, she said the provision that increases required behind-the-wheel training amounts to "feel-good" legislation because it allows parents to fudge additional back-seat supervision of their children's driving. The law raised the number of hours of training required for a license from eight to 20, through expanded school programs, driving schools or home training.
"I think there are those parents that are going to take their kids for extra practice and there those are those who aren't," said Howe, who doesn't blame parents for trying to save the extra $540 she would charge them for the additional training. "It's a feel-good law they passed for the Legislature to say, 'Look we're saving teenagers.' "
The 2005 legislation follows a law introduced in 2004 prohibiting people younger than 18 from driving passengers except parents, instructors, siblings or adults over 20 years old during the first six months they are licensed.
Howe said it takes young drivers up to five years to become "average" drivers. Sen. Biagio Ciotto, D-Wethersfield, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, said that parents have a vested interest in making sure their children are ready to be licensed.
"You have to have faith that the parents will supervise their kids," Ciotto said. He said he might support a minor change in the new law that would create an exemption in the curfew so young drivers involved in the Safe Rides program can continue to provide a free shuttle service for their peers.
Administrated through the American Red Cross, Safe Rides is a program designed to provide teens with safe, no-questions asked rides from parties where alcohol might be consumed.
Rep. Lile R. Gibbons, R-Old Greenwich, a member of the Transportation Committee, said the 25-year-old Safe Rides program has never had a collision while offering teens a free pickup and ride home when they feel they can't drive, or find themselves with drivers with whom they feel uncomfortable.
Gibbons said that the so-called carve out, allowing Safe Rides to continue, may appear in an omnibus Department of Motor Vehicles bill later in the legislative session.
Meanwhile, West, a junior at Stratford's Frank Bunnell High School who is a captain of the varsity baseball team, said the Legislature went too far with the curfew, although he supports the additional training.
"I think it's really not fair for people of our age," said West, contacted during a lesson at Howe's Stratford office. "It shouldn't be an issue of what time it is, but what you're doing."
Sen. Judith G. Freedman, R-Westport, a leading proponent in last year's revisions for young drivers, said that for the time being lawmakers have to take parents at their word when they say they're providing additional training.
"What makes me nervous now is that the kids who get their licenses in the fall then immediately face the snow and ice of winter driving," Freedman said. "And then these kids get right on the highway."
Freedman said there have been several major crashes involving neophyte drivers.
"We don't really have enough statistics, but there have been some scary accidents in my towns involving young drivers," Freedman said. "I know some parents want us to ease up."
Meanwhile, de Regt, the sophomore at Trumbull High, said she will use her drivers license this summer to get to her job across town at the YMCA. "I think I'm pretty ready for the road," de Regt said.