Tougher driving rules for teens may crash in Senate
Revisions pass unanimously in Assembly but might stall in gridlocked chamber
By Tom Precious
NEWS ALBANY BUREAU
ALBANY — The Assembly approved legislation Wednesday that would tighten driving laws for teenagers to require more training before getting a license, tougher restrictions on passengers and an end to plea bargaining for those caught speeding.
The bill, adopted 133-0, had been amended last week to ban text messaging for all drivers, not just teens, as initially proposed.
Thought certain to become law this year, the bill now is up in the air because of last week’s coup in the State Senate.
The Senate has not met in a bill-passing session since June 11. The chamber, split 31-31 between Republicans and Democrats, remains embroiled in a bitter dispute over its leadership.
Safety advocates have pushed the teen driving bill for several years, and the state now lags behind others in making roads safer for teens and other drivers.
“We all want our kids to be safe. By helping them to be safer, we’re helping ourselves to be safer,” said Assemblyman David F. Gantt, a Rochester Democrat and chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee.
The bill, drafted by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, would allow a vehicle driven by a teen to carry only one nonfamily member under age 21 as a passenger. New teen drivers also would have to hold permits for at least six months before being able to get a license. Moving violations by teen drivers would not be eligible for plea bargaining to nonmoving violations.
Another key provision would require teens to get 50 hours of behind-the- wheel training, up from the current 20 hours, before being able to apply to take a road test.
The driving bill sparked a nasty fight between Gantt and several fellow Assembly Democrats. Critics, including Assemblyman Mark J. F. Schroeder of Buffalo, accused Gantt of blocking passage of the texting ban — despite the pleas by counties across the state for action on what safety experts call a growing distraction. Gantt, bowing to pressure, folded the texting ban provisions into the teen driving bill the Assembly passed Wednesday.
“Finally, we have the right outcome,” said Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, D-Brooklyn, the text ban bill’s sponsor.
“I hope the family from Buffalo today will be very proud,” he said on the Assembly floor, referring to Kelly Cline of West Seneca, whose son was killed in a 2007 crash while driving and texting.
Cline personally pushed the texting ban, and her cause was taken up, pro bono, by a firm run by Patricia Lynch, a politically wired lobbyist who has longtime ties to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
But supporters of the teen driving legislation say its chances are now uncertain because of the drama under way in the Senate. When that chamber might reconvene remains unclear.
The current session is due to end next week, and some say only the most crucial of bills — such as laws due to expire at the end of June if not renewed — might stand a chance of passage in a limited session. The Senate also would have to amend its version of the teen driving bill to extend the texting ban to adults as well as teens.
“It’s a natural concern because nobody seems to know how the Senate is going to open up,” Schroeder said.
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.