Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

TOP STORY >> Bill restricting teen drivers is approved

By JONATHAN FELDMAN
Leader staff writer

Teen drivers across the state will soon have some of their driving privileges restricted in order to lower fatality rates.

The Senate approved the House’s changes to Bill 309 on Tuesday, implementing graduated drivers licensing. Gov. Beebe, a supporter of the bill, is expected to sign the bill into law shortly.

The bill was approved nearly unanimously in the Senate both times that it was up for vote. Only one senator, John Teague (D-Nashville), voted against it Tuesday.

Teens will not be allowed to drive unsupervised between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. unless traveling to school or church events or work. Most teens die while driving between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., and most of those accidents occur during weekends, according to the Injury Prevention Center at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

Young drivers will also not be able to drive with more than one non-family member passenger in order to limit dangerous distractions, nor will they be allowed to use a cell phone while driving except in an emergency.

Sen. Bobby Glover (D-Carlisle) was an early supporter of the bill. “I feel the 4 a.m. change is better. There were some concerns that kids going duck hunting weren’t being considered,” he said Tuesday.

Glover was referring to the first version of the bill that the Senate had approved. It would have made 5 a.m. the earliest time that teens can drive. He was pleased with the bill’s passage.

The issue was far more divisive in the House, where the bill passed 58 to 35 on Monday.

Votes were cast largely along party lines, Democrats supporting the bill and Republicans voting against it.

Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville), Rep. Walls McCrary (D-Lonoke) and Rep. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) all supported the bill.

Rep. Davy Carter (R-Cabot) and Rep. Jonathan Dismang (R- Searcy) voted against it.

“I think the time limits are fine, but the limits on the number of passengers 24 hours a day will create hardships on families,” Carter said.

The passenger limitations were responsible for his opposition.

Carter believes teen-driving safety should be dealt with by parents, not state legislators.

McCrary had some reservations about this bill. He understands that the restrictions are inconvenient, but are worthwhile efforts to keep young people safe.

“In some sense, it was a hard decision to make because it will place an imposition on rural areas,” McCrary said Tuesday.

McCrary says the bill is intended to remove some of the common distractions that young drivers face, like cell phones and noisy passengers.

“I voted to save lives after hearing testimony from doctors and safety experts. The statistics of accident rates of young people show that we need to help them,” he said.

McCrary says that this issue has incorrectly been made into a rural versus urban one. He says the assumption is that most accidents involving teenagers occur in cities, not rural areas. Not so, according to McCrary.Arkansas teens more frequently die in accidents along country roads than they do in urban areas, he said.

According to the Center for Disease Control, fatal car wrecks involving teenagers are epidemic in this country. Arkansas teens are killed at much higher levels while driving than in other states.

The CDC and others brought this to the attention of state legislators, according to Sen. John Paul Capps (D-Searcy).

Capps is chairman of the Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs Committee, which first introduced this bill.

The tighter restrictions will make roads safer for everyone and prevent teens from dying, the bill’s supporters say.

Statistics from the Injury Prevention Center also show that teen boys are especially at risk. Two of every three teen drivers killed while driving are boys, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

According to the CDC, 679 Arkansans between the ages of 14 and 20 died in car wrecks in 2000 to 2005, a figure far higher than the rest of the nation.