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Teens Await New Rules on Getting the Car Keys

Licenses: Some young drivers applaud intent of state bill awaiting governor's signature. Others call its restrictions unfair.

September 16, 1997|COLL METCALFE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For a teenager, there are few rights of passage as coveted as that first driver's license.

But that taste of grown-up responsibility and freedom may have to wait if Gov. Pete Wilson signs a recently passed bill aimed at restricting the privileges currently enjoyed by the state's youngest drivers.

The new law would require underage drivers to use a learner's permit for six months rather than 30 days, force them to drive solo or with at least one adult over 25 in the car, and, with few exceptions, prohibit them from driving between midnight and 5 a.m.

"It's not fair and is just going to cause a lot of problems," said 15-year-old Michael Pacheco of Ventura. "I think that we're more careful when we drive and it's the adults who don't think when they drive that cause a lot of the accidents."

County teens were split in their reaction to the state Senate's passage of a bill Friday that would, in the name of safety, substantially curb their driving privileges.

Those who were already 16 and had their licenses largely praised the bill's passage, while teens like Jamie Johanson who have yet to obtain their licenses said they were disappointed and felt the state was concentrating its attention in the wrong area.

"I understand what they're trying to do, but age isn't the problem," said Johanson, 15, of Simi Valley. "It's drugs and alcohol, and I think it would be better if they passed more laws on that."

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Carnelian Bay), whisked through the Senate on a 29-3 vote. According to officials at Leslie's Sacramento office, the governor is expected to sign the measure into law within the next month.

The California Highway Patrol reported that, on average, one teenage driver is killed every other day in California and that car crashes are the No. 1 killer of youths ages 15 to 19.

While teens typically drive fewer miles than adult drivers and represent only 4% of the drivers in the state, they cause more than 9% of all fatal accidents and 10% of all injury accidents in the state, according to the CHP.

If enacted, SB 1329 would severely restrict driving privileges for teens who are issued learner's permits or provisional licenses--issued to motorists 16 to 18--after July 1998.

*

Among the bill's provisions:

* Prospective drivers younger than 18 would be required to hold a learner's permit for at least six months, rather than the 30 days now required. During that time, parents also would be required to spend at least 50 hours of time with their child behind the wheel--10 hours of that at night--compared with the 30 hours now required by state law.

Parents would be required to sign a document stating they spent the time with their child.

* For six months after obtaining a provisional driver's license, teens would not be allowed to carry passengers under the age of 20 without a parent or adult older than 25 in the front passenger seat.

* For a year after obtaining a provisional license, teens would be prohibited from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. Special exemptions would be made for work and school commutes and for family medical reasons.

If the measure becomes law, its provisions would be subject to "secondary enforcement," meaning police would cite teens only if they were first pulled over for speeding or other moving violations. Violators could be fined up to $50 and required to perform as much as 24 hours of community service.

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Supporters of the bill say it was a long time in coming and represents a responsible step toward not only protecting the lives of California teens, but of all drivers.

Mary Grace Homer, an administrator at the ACE Driving Academy in Thousand Oaks, knows as well as anyone the rigors and unpredictability of operating a car on today's freeways and praised legislators for their action.

"Teenagers don't always know what to expect when they pull out onto the road," she said. "They don't understand that anything can happen out there, and the more they're taught the better they'll be able to react."

And newly licensed Justin Becklin agrees.

While admitting that he would have been disappointed if the restrictions had applied to him, the 16-year-old Thousand Oaks resident said he thought people his age are woefully unprepared to tackle the roads. He said the added restrictions would go a long way toward teaching them responsibility and to familiarize teens with the dangers of the road.

"I've known so many kids who get their learner's permit and then 30 days later have their driver's license," he said. "They don't have any experience and just go out to show off and then get into an accident."

Parents, for the most part, voiced sighs of relief upon hearing that their children would be covered by the new motoring safeguards.

"It's about time they did something," said Maria Trujillo of Oxnard. "I don't think kids understand that any time you drive you're risking your life, so maybe this will teach them."

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Some parents, however, criticized the state for overstepping its bounds and doing a job that should be handled by parents.

"The laws are already strict enough, so this really isn't a wise move," said Harry McDonald of Ojai, whose daughter Kirsten recently received her license. "Restrictions like those should be made by parents, not the government."

McDonald's wife Tammie said that if the bill became law it would put more stress on families with two working parents.

"It's very difficult for a lot of parents, particularly if they both work, to always have to be driving around for the kids," she said. "It's a real help to us that our daughter can drive."

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