Proposal bans all electronic devices, requires 50 hours of practice
By Tom Precious
NEWS ALBANY BUREAU
ALBANY — Legislation imposing tougher restrictions on teenage drivers is likely to pass this session, after stalling in Albany the past two years, Paterson administration officials believe.
Under the new rules:
• The number of nonfamily passengers under age 21 in a car driven by a teenager would be restricted to one.
• Electronic devices — hand-held or otherwise — would be banned for teen drivers.
• Practice time would be increased to 50 hours, with at least 15 hours at night, before a road test for a license can be taken. Currently, 20 hours are required, and 39 states require more training than New York, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
• Road tests could not be scheduled for at least six months after a teenager obtains a driver’s permit.
Last-minute squabbles and political fights killed previous efforts during a two-year period when more than 400 fatal crashes occurred involving teen drivers throughout the state.
“We’re confident it will pass this year,” said David Swarts, state motor vehicle commissioner.
One big reason for the optimism is federal money.
Federal lawmakers Thursday unveiled legislation that threatens to take away transportation money to states that do not beef up their teen safety laws.
“This legislation is simply about saving lives. It is about teaching young people both the responsibility and privileges of driving,” said Rep. Tim Bishop, a Long Island Democrat and lead sponsor of the federal bill proposing a single national standard on teen driving — known as graduated driver licensing laws.
State officials believe previous hurdles have evaporated.
Last year’s push was killed when some Republican senators objected to mandating seat belt use for all back-seat passengers. However, the new Paterson bill has removed the seat belt provision and now focuses squarely on teen licensing issues.
The Senate is currently run by Democrats, who would be backing a bill by a Democratic governor.
Also, there is concern about teen driving fatalities and that New York has slipped behind other states’ safety standards.
The federal legislation unveiled Thursday would establish nationwide restrictions for nighttime driving by teens; impose bans on electronic devices, including cell phones; and impose longer practice time for teens with permits.
With the enactment of the Paterson bill, New York would be able to comply with many elements of the federal plan.
Currently, only in New York and New Hampshire can teens get their licenses in fewer than six months from the date of obtaining a permit. The new federal bill mandates at least a six-month waiting period.
Under the state bill, teen drivers would be restricted to one nonfamily passenger younger than 21; there would be no limit on family members.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found an alarming connection between teen accidents and the number of passengers in a car. The federal agency says two-thirds of fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers were in cars with teen passengers.
Experts believe that the more teens in a car, the more likely the inexperienced driver will become distracted. Fatal crash rates are three times higher with three teen passengers compared with vehicles with one teen passenger.
The Paterson measure also would end plea bargaining for moving violations such as speeding, thus guaranteeing points on violators’ licenses.
“What is a person learning if they are able to get a reduction in the violation to nonmoving and not experience the sanctions associated with points?” Swarts said. “There are consequences for bad driving behavior, and we think tightening the plea-bargaining rules will help make the roads safer.”
If the Paterson bill passes, one notable state provision would not meet the requirements of the federal bill. New York currently permits 17-yearolds to get their full, unrestricted license — meaning all nighttime and passenger restrictions are removed—for completing a driver education course. The federal bill calls for no adult-level licenses until drivers are 18.
The Paterson bill, which is moving along in the Senate, does not yet have an Assembly sponsor. The Assembly, though, last year approved a comprehensive teen driving bill that Paterson proposed, but it failed in the Senate on the last day of the session. Swarts said he expects the Assembly to introduce the Paterson bill soon.
The federal bill has an effective carrot-and-stick approach.
States that comply for three years would get money to promote safe teen driving. Those that don’t would lose federal money that funds state highway improvement projects.
“Believe me, that’s effective,” Rep. Michael Castle, R-Delaware, said during an event in Washington, D. C., unveiling the new legislation. The former governor said legislators can be persuaded “in a hurry” to pass such laws when funding is at stake.
“I see this as a safety issue, and I want New York to be ahead of the curve on this,” said Sen. Martin Malave Dilan, a Brooklyn Democrat who heads the Senate Transportation Committee, which approved the measure Tuesday.
The statistics are sobering.
Motor vehicle accidents are the No. 1 cause of death—at 36 percent — for teenagers.
Teen drivers are twice as likely to die as adult drivers, federal studies show. And a 16- year-old driver is three times as likely to be involved in a crash as a 17-year-old and five times more likely than an 18-year-old.
In 2007, 236 people — teen drivers, their passengers or occupants of other vehicles — were killed in New York, according to Saferoads4teens Coalition, a group of safety, health care, business and insurance groups that kicked off Thursday’s push for the federal bill. In the past five years, 1,231 people have been killed in teen crashes in the state.