New Jersey urged to tighten rules for teen drivers 3 stages of licensingover 18 months, curfew at night are proposed


TRENTON, N.J. -- Citing statistics that show teen-agers in the United States are responsible for a disproportionate share of traffic accidents, safety advocates in New Jersey are pushing for legislation that would place new restrictions on the youngest drivers, stiffening what is already one of the strictest licensing systems in the nation.

Their proposal, which the state Legislature is expected to consider this spring, would require drivers younger than 18 to pass through three stages of licensing over 18 months, maintaining a spotless driving record throughout. Teen-agers would not be permitted to drive alone after midnight during this period, and they would not be allowed to carry other teen-agers with them for the first six months.

New Jersey is among a growing number of states considering this kind of system, known as graduated licensing, which typically includes restrictions such as night curfews and requires teen-agers with learners' permits to spend at least six months practicing with a licensed adult in the passenger seat.

Maryland's law a first

About a dozen states, including Maryland, have adopted graduated licensing laws in recent years, and while some are more lenient than others, safety advocates say they all send the same message: Driving is a privilege, not a right.

"These restrictions create an incentive for kids to be as straight an arrow as they possibly can," said Jim McKnight, president of the National Public Services Research Institute in Landover, Md., who has studied graduated licensing laws since 1979, when Maryland became the first state to adopt one.

"It can be a powerful incentive for kids to drive safely and lawfully at the time when they are most vulnerable," McKnight said.

Although the number of teen-agers responsible for traffic

accidents in the United States dropped between 1985 and 1992, it has been climbing again in recent years.

Driver error accounts for 82 percent of fatal crashes among 16-year-olds, compared with 5 percent for people between 35 and 49, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

And in 1995, 65 percent of teen-age passenger deaths occurred when another teen-ager was at the wheel.

Graduated licensing laws are gaining popularity as more states increase speed limits, suburban roads grow more congested and the nation expects a teen-age population boom.

Budget cuts have forced hundreds of school districts to eliminate driving courses during the last 10 years, and safety advocates say graduated licensing is the best way to ensure that new drivers get at least several hours of formal instruction.

New Jersey is now the only state where residents must be 17 to receive a license that allows them to drive unsupervised.

But advocates insist that this restriction is not enough, because the state requires 17-year-olds to hold a learner's permit for only 20 days before taking the road test for a regular license.

"These kids are young, they're emotional, but we let them drive alone after two weeks," said John Leone of Wall Township, N.J., whose youngest son died four years ago, at 16, when a 17-year-old classmate he was riding with drove into a tree. "We need to give them more supervised practice with an experienced driver."

It will not pass easily

If the graduated licensing proposal becomes law in New Jersey, it will be one of the strictest in the nation. Because the proposal has so many elements, its supporters admit that it will not be easy to pass in its entirety.

New Jersey legislators have considered less comprehensive graduated licensing bills in recent years, but they never gained enough support.

In other states, proposals for curfews and limits on teen-age passengers have been especially controversial.

"We know there will be opposition," said state Sen. Robert Singer, who plans to introduce the bill in the Legislature next month. "People are going to say, 'There goes Big Brother again, telling us what to do.' We need to get more information out as to the benefits of it."

The proposal, shaped by Leone and other safety advocates, would require 16- and 17-year-olds to hold a learner's permit for ,, six months without any accidents or moving violations. During those six months, they could drive only with a licensed adult supervisor in the passenger seat, and teen-age friends would not be allowed in the car.

At age 17 they could get a provisional license for 12 months, during which they would have to take a six-hour driver's education course and continue to maintain a clean record.

Throughout the provisional stage, teen-agers could not drive between midnight and 5 a.m. unless they had to work or attend religious functions.

New York state already has a form of graduated licensing, with a night curfew for drivers younger than 18 and a six-month probationary period during which all new drivers, regardless of age, are penalized for moving violations.

But safety advocates are calling for a stricter law in New York that would require a six-month learner's permit, then a 12-month intermediate license with at least six hours of behind-the-wheel training.

No legislation has been drafted yet, but Marta Genovese, director of government affairs for the Automobile Club of New York, said she expected a bill to be introduced this year.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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