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For the week of Feb. 16 through Feb. 22, 2000

Teen licensing bill deserves a hearing

Commentary by JIM MANION


An Idaho legislator's recent remarks suggest lawmakers may be missing the forest for the trees on a crucial public safety issue. For all our efforts to ensure that every child is safe inside our classrooms, he said, we may have ignored what happens to those children on their way to and from our schools.

He's right.

In this, the generation of the child, we may be guilty of fixing our financial conscience on causes that have blurred our vision to a bigger problem.

Legislation aimed at improving the way we license teen drivers deserves a hearing and a floor vote by Idaho lawmakers this year. Designed to reduce teen collisions, save lives and tackle burgeoning traffic violations, a modest plan presented last year was turned down in committee on a one-vote margin.

It would have required more adult supervision before a teen could get a driver's license. Its modest requirements for a clean driving record and sensible restrictions are similar to new licensing laws that are cutting collisions and producing safer drivers throughout the country.

Sounds almost too simple.

So why did a legislative committee turn it down last year? And will the House Transportation Committee exercise that option again this year?

Last year, legislators argued we shaped teen collision statistics inappropriately to make the problem appear worse than it is. They said the plan was too complicated, and that they had not heard from their constituents on this important issue. There was another familiar refrain: rural teens shouldn't have the same rules.

The vote made the legislation go away, but not the problems associated with the way we license teen drivers.

The issue is rooted in a 1949 licensing model that requires just 30 hours of classroom instruction and a paltry 6 hours of behind-the-wheel training before teens can get a license. Until recently, that model was a foundation for virtually every states' licensing laws, but irrefutable data about teen over-involvement in crashes has caused 36 states to enact graduated driver licensing laws. Idaho has not. Our highways, city streets and rural back roads have become a war zone, littered with 500 teen deaths in just the past 10 years.

While legislators were solving other problems, Idaho teen drivers, representing just 9 percent of all licensed drivers in the state, were racking up 21 percent of the fatalities, 21 percent of the injury collisions, 20 percent of the citations and 12 percent of the alcohol-involved collisions. No other age group, including seniors, even comes close to the 21,000 Basic Rule citations issued to teens in Idaho in 1998. (A Basic Rule citation refers to an Idaho law applying to driving in a manner consistent with road conditions.)

Many teens are responsible, proficient drivers, but they are more apt to take risks like one last year where a skateboarder was killed while car surfing behind another teen's vehicle. Or like the horrific eastern Idaho collision in February of 1999 where a car was broadsided, killing a 15-year-old female and injuring five others.

An eerie, unsettling silence fell over a Twin Falls junior high school audience last May when an Idaho AAA employee called out the name of a poster contest winner. In a sickly, ironic twist, the 14-year-old student, who was to have received an award for his traffic safety poster, was not present. He and two other teens had died a few weeks earlier in a single car rollover.

Investigating officers estimated the car's teen driver may have been traveling at speeds up to 100 miles an hour before it flipped in the rural barrowpit.

This legislation has been overwhelmingly endorsed by Idaho's driver training educators. It is supported by insurance companies, law enforcement agencies and the county sheriffs responsible for issuing licenses. It was crafted with approval and support of the Driver Services Division of the Idaho Transportation Department. And a November 1999 survey mailed to 900 Idahoans indicates that nine out of 10 respondents support and would vote for such legislation.

The question is, will legislators again turn a blind eye to one of this state's most obvious public safety issues?

Jim Manion of Boise is president of AAA’s Idaho division.

 

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