Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

TOP STORY >> Bills aim to cut teen fatalities

By JONATHAN FELDMAN
Leader staff writer

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in this country, and Arkansas teens are killed while driving at far higher rates than in other states.

Some area residents, who know many teens who have lost their lives in traffic accidents here, are working to change this, along with legislation that was approved in the Senate on Tuesday.

Senate bills 309 and 78 propose bringing some of the state’s driving laws up to speed with much of the rest of the country. They are sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Jeffress (D-Crossett) and Sen. Henry Wilkins IV (D-Pine Bluff.)

If approved by the House, Senate Bill 309 will require teens to complete a more rigorous licensing process as compared to current standards.

The bill intends to implement graduated driver-licensing, a three-staged process that its supporters say makes roads safer for everyone and prevents teens from dying, while Senate Bill 78 will stiffen the state’s seat belt laws by allowing law-enforcement officers to pull over drivers who are not buckled up. In other words, not wearing seat belts will be a primary offense.

Proponents of the bills say that right now teenagers are fast-tracked to getting a full license. The new licensing format, they say, will provide a more thorough introduction to driving by placing tighter restrictions on teenage drivers.

Young drivers will receive an intermediate license, and undergo a supervised learning period.

Intermediate license holders will not be allowed to drive unsupervised between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. unless traveling to school, church events, or work. Most teens who die while driving were doing so between the hours of 9 p.m and 6 a.m., and most of those accidents occurred during weekends, according to the Injury Prevention Center at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

Teens will not be allowed to drive with more than one passenger in order to limit any dangerous distractions, nor will they be allowed to use a cell phone while driving except in emergencies.

Statistics from the Injury Prevention Center also indicate that graduated licensing and primary seat belt laws greatly reduce traffic-fatality rates.

People wear seat belts more often in states with primary seat belt laws than in ones without such laws.

Teens who have earned their driver’s licenses through the graduated methods have lower accident rates, which means fewer injuries and deaths.

Some states have seen drops in fatality rates among teens by as much as 38 percent and 40 percent drops in injurious accidents, according to the Injury Prevention Center.

About two of every three drivers killed while driving are boys, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

There were 679 Arkansans between the ages of 14 and 20 who died in car wrecks from 2000 to 2005, a figure far higher than the rest of the nation, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Teens dying in car wrecks is not a statistical matter for Erica Roberg, 17, and a senior at Cabot High School. Her friend, John Fortner, died in a late-night car accident in Cabot. She had known him since preschool.

Roberg was shocked by Fortner’s death. She wondered if accidents like that were common and began asking questions about driving safety among teenagers. She was alarmed at the frequency of accidents involving teens and learned that in many cases, the accidents were preventable.

With the help of her mother — Jetta Roberg, an emergency room nurse for 22 years at Children’s Hospital — the two set out to educate their community about the importance of safe driving.

The Robergs have delivered a Powerpoint presentation prepared by the Injury Prevention Center, an advocacy group formed by Arkansas Children’s Hospital, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Allstate Insurance to approximately half of Cabot’s ninth graders who are preparing for their driving tests.

Cabot Middle School North and Cabot Middle School South have asked the Robergs to explain the major causes of car accidents and the dangers that teenage drivers face.

Despite her hectic nursing schedule, Jetta Roberg says that she and her daughter will speak to any school or community organization interested in the safety issues posed by young drivers.

They attended the Senate committee meeting on Monday that unanimously passed the bills.
“Passing this is a no-brainer,” Jetta Roberg said about the bills.

She says reducing death rates among teenagers is a common-sense and bipartisan issue.
“Parents need to teach and guide their children through the driving process,” she said.

That is the only way to lower fatality rates, she said. She sees these bills as empowering to parents because it allows them to ease their children into driving life instead of unleashing them onto the roads with little practice.

“Cars are very convenient, but they are also as potentially dangerous as a weapon. You don’t want to turn someone loose with something like that, but we do it all the time in Arkansas,” Roberg said.

The Robergs don’t want other families and communities to feel the despair brought by the deaths of young friends, many of which they see as preventable.

She is also pleased from the support the bills have received. “When people call their state representatives and senators, things do get done.”

Senate Bill 309 passed 30 to 2, and Senate Bill 78 passed 28 to 6.

“Irrespective of the inconveniences, these bills will save lives,” Sen. Bobby Glover (D-Carlisle) said on Tuesday just before the full Senate voted on the bills.

“We tried to get the graduated-driver license (bill) done in the last session,” he said. He expects these bills to be taken up by the House sometime next week.

Sen. Glover said there was such little opposition to these bills because the facts related to teen drivers are clear.

Sen. John Paul Capps (D-Searcy) is chairman of the Trans-portation, Technology and Legis-lative Affairs Committee, which reviewed both bills. “Arkansas is ranked sixth in the nation for traffic fatalities (among teens) over the last ten years,” Capps said.

Capps is appreciative of the National Highway Safety Administration that helped bring these tragic statistics to light.

He is also pleased that the bills are progressing well.

“We are losing a lot of teenagers. I don’t think this legislation will intrude on their freedoms,” referring to the proposed restrictions on teen drivers.

Capps estimated that the House will vote on both bills within the next ten days.

“I’ve been working hard to see that lives are saved. I’m very happy,” Erica Roberg said after learning that the Senate had approved both measures.