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Some Teens Take License With Driving Privileges

October 20, 1994|DENNIS ROMERO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the school day ends at St. Mary's Academy in Inglewood, Juliet Gurrola hits the parking lot. She takes off her schoolgirl oxfords in favor of black Skechers tennies. Then she scales her parents' timeworn '87 Jeep Cherokee.

In regulation pleated skirt and pressed white blouse, the 5-foot-3 18-year-old looks the part of an anti-criminal. But when Gurrola turns the key, the law says she turns into a menace.

Gurrola is part of a growing population on the streets of Southern California: unlicensed teen-age drivers. Their numbers have soared, officials say, because of the virtual elimination of free high school driver-training courses, the high cost of training and insuring a young driver, and a law that took effect this year requiring proof of legal residency for license-seekers.

"I was waiting till I reached 18 so I didn't have to go through driver training," says Gurrola, who still plans to get her license this year. "That's $200 I didn't have to spend."

She's driven without so much as an illegal-U-turn ticket since she was 12, Gurrola says proudly, although she acknowledges that she's had a few mishaps.

Others haven't been so lucky.

On June 1, a car driven by an unlicensed 15-year-old collided with two other vehicles in Santa Clarita, killing the teen and her two passengers. Three months earlier, a car driven by an unlicensed 18-year-old collided with another vehicle in Sun Valley. His teen-age passenger, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the car and killed.

But to many teen-agers, it remains a game.

"I got caught driving without a license two months ago," says an East Los Angeles high school senior who is still without a license. "I have to pay $81." A minute later, she drives off in her old convertible with two passengers. A nearby school police officer surveys the scene.

Adds 18-year-old driver Karen Cardona of East L.A., "I've never even been to the DMV."

Rudy Parker, coordinator for driver education at the Los Angeles Unified School District, estimates that the number of teen-agers in district schools who forgo licensing has increased by 60% over the past two years. "They don't have the money to pay for driver training," he says, "so they drive illegally."

The state quit funding driver training--the actual behind-the-wheel component--in 1990, leading the Los Angeles school district and most others to discontinue the driving lessons, which are required for under-18 license-seekers. So students must turn to for-profit driving schools, which charge $225 and up for classroom education and training.

In addition, a law that went into effect in the spring requires proof of legal residency before licenses are issued. "We see illegal alien kids come into court," L.A. juvenile traffic Judge David Searcy says. "They say, 'I can't get a license. I'm here illegally.' That's the end of it. They're going to go out and drive some more."

*

The costs of insurance (about $860 and up), registration (2% of a car's value), and permit and license ($24--the bargain of the process), authorities say, have also fed the surge in unlicensed teen-agers.

While the teen-age population remained about the same from 1981 to 1991, the percentage of licensed drivers 16 to 19 fell nearly a third, according to the most recent DMV statistics. Experts say there are as many as 2 million unauthorized drivers in the state--one of every 10 motorists--although no one is sure how many are teen-agers. Says DMV spokesman Evan Nossoff: "The number of licensed teen drivers continues to decline."

Last year the California Highway Patrol logged a 7% increase over 1992 in the number of citations given to those who have never held a license. Judges can fine unlicensed drivers from $81 to $675. With repeat offenders, the DMV can deny licensing into their adult years.

Unlicensed drivers are also causing a majority of hit-and-run accidents in the Los Angeles Police Department's Central and Valley traffic divisions, officers say. Some of those arrested are teen-agers. "Mom says it's OK to drive," a Valley traffic officer says. "These people don't care."

Troubled by unlicensed drivers who flout the system, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) authored a law that mandates confiscation of an unlicensed driver's own car the second time he or she is caught driving it. "The bill came from a frustration in watching all the attempts in the past several years, including fines," Katz says, "and all these things seemed to have no impact."

A law authored by state Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco) picks up where Katz's leaves off. It allows 30-day impoundment of any car used by an unlicensed driver, regardless of who owns it. "The bill is based upon the inordinate amount of injury, damage and death on California roadways caused by unlicensed drivers," Kopp says. Both laws take effect Jan. 1.

The LAUSD's Parker say restoring state money for driver training is a better solution.

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