Teen driver legislation advances
On Monday, House Bill 9, which would limit the number of teen passengers to one in a vehicle, for the first six months that a junior driver has a license, with exceptions for family members, passed the state Senate by a vote of 41-8.
The proposal, sponsored by state Rep. Kathy Watson, R-144th Dist., also would expand training requirements before a teenager could take a test for his or her license, specifically increasing behind-the-wheel training from the current 50 hours to 65 hours and require 10 of those hours to be at night and five of those hours would have to be during inclement weather.
The proposal also would make it a primary offense for any person to drive a vehicle with a passenger under 18 who isn’t wearing a seatbelt or isn’t properly restrained in a booster or car seat. That means a police officer could stop a vehicle if the officer suspects such a passenger isn’t buckled up or properly restrained.
“I am very hopeful that the majority in the House will concur,” Watson said Tuesday, explaining the bill, which included a Senate amendment regarding the passenger limitations, goes back to the House for a concurrence vote.
If the House members concur, then the bill would be sent to Gov. Tom Corbett for his signature. That concurrence vote in the House could come as early as Wednesday.
“I am very hopeful we can resolve this issue soon,” said state Sen. John Rafferty, R-44th Dist., chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, referring to the fact legislators have been debating teen driving issues for several years. “I think it’s a safety factor and I’m hopeful it will prevent accidents and save the lives of our young people.”
Watson’s original House version, sent to the Senate in May for consideration, restricted holders of junior licenses to one teen passenger, with exceptions for family members, until they were 18. The bill was amended in the Senate to reduce the time a new driver can have just one teen passenger to six months.
Watson said she is willing to accept the compromise and support the amended Senate version.
“Can it always be better? Yes. But this is very good and Pennsylvania has nothing at this point. This is the act of compromise and understanding,” Watson said. “We will reduce crashes and save lives in this age group and prepare better drivers to share the road.”
If passed, Senate members also support legislators receiving a bi-annual report concerning the law’s implementation and enforcement. Watson said such a review could lead to future updates in the law.
Watson has been fighting for changes in the state’s teen driving laws since 2005. Previous versions of such bills languished when Senate and House members couldn’t reach a compromise. When the Legislature failed to pass previous distracted and teen driving proposals, specifically House Bills 67 and 2070, by the end of the last session in December, some legislators, including Watson, vowed to continue the fight when the new session convened in January.
Watson previously said research has shown that GDL laws are associated with reduced teen driver fatalities. States with comprehensive GDL laws in place report as much as a 40 percent drop in the number of fatal crashes among 16 year old drivers, said Watson, whose district covers Bucks County.
Pennsylvania is one of only seven states without an updated GDL law, according to Watson.
“This legislation is not intended to replace good parenting,” said Watson, referring to House Bill 9. “Many of the parents who are establishing ground rules for their teens’ driving habits are looking to the law to back up their decisions. This legislation clearly provides guidance to these parents and sends a message to teens that we want to help them become good, safe drivers and keep them alive and bring them home safely.”
According to one AAA study previously cited by Watson, the chances a 16-year-old will die in a crash increase 39 percent with one teen passenger; 86 percent with two teen passengers; and 182 percent with three or more teen passengers.
“Vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death for teenagers, due to both inexperience behind-the-wheel and distractions,” said Watson, explaining her push to upgrade state graduated driver licensing laws for junior license holders. “This not only would make roads and highways safer for teen drivers and their passengers, but for everyone who use our roads and highways.”
The bill’s advancement comes several months after Pennsylvania received a failing grade for driving safety legislation from a national safe driving advocacy group. Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety ranked Pennsylvania as one of the seven worst performing states when it comes to the adoption of 15 overall basic laws the group believes are essential to reducing deaths and injuries on the nation’s highways and reducing health care costs.
The group determined that Pennsylvania, through 2010, enacted only 6 ½ of 15 basic safe driving laws overall and only 3 ½ of the 7 laws it proposes for safe teen driving. Pennsylvania received an overall “Danger” rating, the group finding that the “state falls dangerously behind” in adoption of the basic lifesaving laws.
“Two of the greatest safety concerns on our highways are young drivers who are distracted and who do not have the experience of more mature drivers,” Watson, who chairs the House Transportation Committee’s Transportation Safety Subcommittee, said previously. “Passing this measure…puts Pennsylvania on a path of protecting all of our drivers and passengers and ensures that our state is appropriately responding to national traffic crash data by updating our laws.”
Follow Carl Hessler Jr. on Twitter @MontcoCourtNews.