Teens hit the brakes on graduated driver's licenses

Saturday, October 29th 2005, 1:50 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ As far as 14-year-old Chenise Nakanashi's concerned, new restrictions for teenage drivers that go into effect Tuesday might make Oklahoma's highways safer but state government shouldn't have to tell her when and with whom she can drive.

``Shouldn't it be our parents who make that decision?'' said the ninth grade student at Oklahoma City's Classen School of Advanced Studies.

New rules for Oklahoma's graduated driver's license law were adopted by the Legislature last spring in an effort to improve highway safety and reduce the number of collisions and fatalities among teenage drivers.

But the guidelines are getting mixed reaction from teens who will have to comply with them.

``I wouldn't like it if I was a teenager either. Would you?'' said Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, one of the law's authors.

Although not popular with all teens, the rules will help give young drivers the experience they need to make safe decisions behind the wheel, Leftwich said.

``Let's give these young novice drivers a little more structure,'' she said. ``They've got to have that experience behind the wheel to avoid some of these fatalities.''

The new rules supplement driver guidelines originally adopted in 1999. Among other things, teen driving times will be restricted to between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m., with exceptions for driving to work, school, church or similar activities or if a licensed driver is in the car.

The measure also prevents teenage drivers from joy-riding with their friends, prohibiting teens with a restricted license from driving with multiple passengers younger than 21, other than family members.

The restrictions would be removed over one year if the teen maintains a clean driving records.

The law is patterned after regulations in other states including North Carolina, where similar rules went into effect in 1997.

Three years later, the state recorded a 27 percent drop in fatal accidents involving 16 and 17-year-old drivers and a 29 percent reduction in accidents among the age group, said Rep. Danny Morgan, D-Prague, the measure's House author.

``Experience reduces these accidents,'' Morgan said. ``You need experience with a driver sitting beside you.''

Teenage drivers are involved in more crashes in Oklahoma than any other age group, according to the Department of Public Safety.

In 2003, 50 of the 442 drivers killed in collisions in the state, or 11.3 percent, were aged 16-20, DPS said. In addition, 18.8 percent of all highway crashes in the state, a total of 25,331, involved drivers aged 16-20, DPS said. Only 8.3 percent of the licensed drivers in Oklahoma fell within that age group in 2003.

Oklahomans who have completed a driver's education course can receive a learner's permit at age 15 1/2, but those who do not take driver's education must wait until they are 16 under the guidelines.

In addition, teens with an intermediate license who have taken driver's education can get an unrestricted license in six months. Those without drivers education must wait one year.

Ana Riera, a 17-year-old driver who serves as interim chair of the Tulsa Youth Council, said she supports the rules.

``I think it's a great measure. I think that the government is trying to prevent the number of accidents,'' Riera said.

But the driver's education guidelines concerned students at the Classen school, who said they are unfair because not all families can afford to pay for it. Driver's education is not mandatory in Oklahoma and not all public schools offer it.

``My concern is for the young people who don't have enough money to be eligible for driver's education classes,'' said Nakanashi.

``I think that all the restrictions can be dealt with. I feel that this limits irresponsible decisions made by younger drivers,'' said Alec Fraser, a 14-year-old freshman at Classen.

But Fraser said it is unfair to not provide financial support to families who cannot afford to pay the $300 that many private driver's education courses cost.

``It does pose a little bit of a problem when you go to get your license. Some people can't afford driver's ed,'' said Alim Ramji, also a 14-year-old freshman at Classen.

Leftwich said many high schools do not offer driver's education because the state does not fully reimburse their cost. She said she has filed legislation to increase reimbursement caps.

``We've got to encourage the schools to keep the programs or reopen them,'' Leftwich said. ``I agree with these kids and I want to see that happen.''