State Senate votes to toughen teen driving laws

By Tom Precious
News Albany Bureau
July 16, 2009, 3:05 PM
ALBANY — The State Senate this afternoon passed legislation toughening New York's teen driving laws and making it illegal for drivers of all ages to text message while driving.
The legislation passed the Senate 57-1 after unanimously being approved by the Assembly last month. Gov. David Paterson is expected to sign the bill.
"I'm kind of nervous. It's almost seems too good to be true," said Diane Magle, whose daughter, Katie, was 17 in 2005 when she died as a passenger in a car driven by another teenager that struck a tree in Orchard Park. Magle has been among the parents around the state pushing for the tougher standards.
The text messaging ban for all drivers comes after counties across New York have been urging Albany to enact a single, statewide ban on what safety experts say is an especially dangerous distraction. An earlier provision had applied the ban just to teenagers; that was amended to include all drivers, and includes text messaging and transmission of e-mails while driving. Drivers can still use hands-free devices to talk while driving.
The teen driving provisions includes a sharp increase in the number of hours — from 20 to 50 — that new drivers must train behind the wheel with their parents or guardians before being able to schedule a road test.
The bill, which became a rallying cry for parents after several deadly crashes in the state, also reduces to one — from two presently — the number of nonfamily members under the age of 21 permitted in a car driven by a teen driver. The provision applies until the driver gets a full, adult license.
The measure also requires permit holders to wait six months before being able to schedule a road test.
Gone from the bill, though, was a provision prohibiting teen drivers caught speeding or other such moving violation to plea bargain to a non-moving violation as a way of avoiding points accumulating on their licenses. That clause was removed at the insistence of Assembly negotiators.
The new text messaging ban will take effect Nov. 1 if Paterson signs the bill. Among the proponents of the text messaging ban was Kelly Cline, the mother of a high school student killed in a 2007 crash while text messaging near the entrance to his West Seneca neighborhood.
"I think we're going to save lives," an ecstatic Cline said this afternoon.
"Until you tell someone what they're doing is wrong, then you're telling them it's OK to do it. So, before this no-texting law, we weren't telling anyone that this was bad," she said. Cline added the law will be another tool for parents. "Now parents can say to their children that you can't text message. Not only is it not safe, but it is now against the law,'' she said.
The governor's motor vehicle department proposed the tougher driving standards so Paterson's signature on the bill is believed to be all but certain.
In 2007, 236 people — teen drivers, their passengers or occupants of other vehicles — were killed statewide in crashes involving teen drivers, according to Saferoads4teens Coalition, a group of safety, health care, business and insurance groups. Cars in two-thirds of fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers carried teen passengers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Institute has found.
Under pending federal legislation, states that don't beef up their teen driving laws would lose federal highway funds. The Assembly bill would meet most of the demands of the federal bill, except the age at which teens who have passed a driver's education program could qualify for unrestricted licenses -17 in the state measure but 18 in the federal legislation.

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