N.J. hopes to save teens' lives with new license law

Restrictions placed on those younger than 18 from midnight to 5 a.m.

January 22, 2002|By Kaitlin Gurney | Kaitlin Gurney,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - New Jersey law has effectively clamped down on teens' double dates, car pools, group pizza runs during lunch, and late-night parties.

These high school staples are expected largely to end with New Jersey's recently enacted strict graduated driver's license, which prohibits new motorists younger than 18 from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. or carting more than one nonrelative of any age at any time. Pennsylvania also has a graduated license for teens but has no restrictions on passengers.

Being cool, students say, no longer is a question of whether they have a car. Now it's all about what sort of driver's license they have: an old, restriction-free license, or the new "Cinderella" kind, dubbed for the curfew it enforces. "My daughter thanked me for giving birth to her when I did," said Toby Hollins, mother of Loni, 17, a junior at Cherry Hill West who earned her driver's license under the old system on her birthday Dec. 23.

Loni Hollins says her high school classmates have been calling her nonstop, telling her how lucky she was to squeak by under the old system.

Although the law went into effect Jan. 1, teens who were born in 1984 and earned their learner's permits early were exempt. All students who turn 17 in 2002 and after will fall under the new system.

High school students say it's not the curfew they object to because parent-enforced versions rarely are much later. Their social lives are cramped, they say, by the restrictions forcing them to choose one lucky rider.

"I understand that [the law] was created to save lives, but it's an annoyance," said Matthew McClure, 16, a cross-country runner at Haddonfield High School. "Now, at practice, I won't be able to drive several underclassmen home, when I was given that opportunity."

New Jersey joins 47 states, including Maryland, and the District of Columbia in having graduated driver's licenses.

In Pennsylvania, teens can earn their provisional driver's license at 16 1/2 , compared with New Jersey's 17. Pennsylvania's curfew is 11 p.m. - an hour earlier than in New Jersey - but young Pennsylvania drivers can have as many passengers as they have seat belts.

"This doesn't take the keys away from teens, it just prohibits what statistics show to be the riskiest behaviors," said Dana Sullivan, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles.

State police will enforce the law, said spokesman John Hagerty, but there "is no plan for a specific crackdown," he said. Violations come with a $100 fine.

Other police departments say the law won't be a high priority. "We have no immediate plans to enforce the law," said Lt. Robert English of the Cherry Hill Police Department.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 16-year-old drivers have crash rates that are three times greater than 17-year-olds, five times greater than 18-year-olds, and twice that of 85-year-olds.

Graduated licensing has been shown to be effective in some states. Florida reported a 9 percent drop in crashes for 16- and 17-year-old drivers in 1997, its first year with the system.

In 1996, before most state graduated-licensing laws took effect, 6,319 teenage drivers died in car accidents. In 2000, the number was 4,877.

"Something is going right out there, and we have every reason to think it's the graduated driver's licenses," said Ed Milton, director of the national driver registrar for NHTSA.

In New Jersey, home to some of the most crowded highways in the country, graduated licensing is particularly important, said state Sen. Robert Singer, an Ocean County Republican and sponsor of the graduated-licensing legislation. "This is a tough state to drive in, there are more people to a square mile than in any other state, and one of the biggest distractions for young people is other people in the car," Singer said. "I know young people think it's a punitive thing, but I vote for safety over inconvenience."

That inconvenience is objectionable to some parents. The law means one extra year of relentless carpooling.

"Every time one of our children turns 17, it's a lighter load for the parents," said JoAnn Weigand of Cherry Hill, whose 16-year-old daughter, Emily, has diving practice at the College of New Jersey in Trenton five days a week. Emily turns 17 on Feb. 4, and could have driven the three other students in her car pool to Trenton if she were two months older, Weigand said.

Phil Cohen, a driving instructor at Echelon Driving School in Voorhees, says he thinks the new restrictions make sense. "But if I were 17, I'd feel the same way they do," he said.

Added Marc Marmino, a Shawnee High School junior who turns 17 on Feb. 14: "I remember back in middle school, when this was first proposed, we all sat around doing the math in our head, groaning as we realized we were the ones who would be affected."

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