Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Carload of teens: precious, dangerous cargo

I saw a scary sight this morning. Here in Missouri, we’re iced in at the present. Streets in my neighborhood are wretched. Not fit for the best four-wheel drive. But, there was my neighbor’s teenager, climbing in a car with a bunch of pals, iced-over windows, snow still all over the back windshield. Off they flew on the glazed rink that was my street.

What concerned me the most was that there were at least seven kids in that car. I am not one to spout off “there should be a law against that” but there SHOULD be a law against this. And in many states, there is. Sort of.

Frequently, you will read in our Web news or hear on “Land Line Now” on XM Satellite Radio Channel 171 about driving laws restricting teens as they learn to drive. State Legislative Editor Keith Goble reports frequently on graduated licensing.

Most states now have that kind of law, and many include passenger limitations as the kids are learning. Some states have good laws, and some are weak. None are really great. A great law in my opinion would be one in which seven kids in a car with a teen driver is a primary violation. That means the police can pull a kid over who appears to have more than three other teens in the car.

Like a sensible person would really need a study to tell them a load of kids and a loud radio blasting the new Korn CD is not distracting – but there’s a number of excellent studies that support a limited passenger law for teens.

In 2004, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety published one, declaring that a little more than half of all crash deaths involving 16-year-old drivers occurred when they had teen passengers in their vehicles.

There’s a new study out that pinpoints behavior. It’s no surprise that when teenagers drive with other kids in the car, they drive faster and basically engage in riskier stuff, like that crazy lane-switching thing. All while everyone in the car is talking or texting on their cell phones.

I’ve always been an advocate of primary passenger restriction for teen drivers. I did it with my own kid some years back. The graduated licensing laws are good, but not tough enough. Police can’t and won’t enforce them, and many kids simply ignore the restrictions. Their parents ignore the rules, too. It’s never YOUR kid who is a bad driver.

What is a typical graduated licensing law? Let’s look at Alabama. There, teens can get a learner’s permit at age 15, must hold it for six months and complete 30 hours of supervised driving before moving on to the restricted license. Teens must be at least 16 to get that restricted license, during which they cannot drive with more than three passengers (not including a parent) and must have adult supervision between midnight and 6 a.m. Teens can get a regular license at 17 and then restrictions go bye-bye.

I am zeroing in on Alabama because earlier this month in Hayden, AL, three of Hayden High School’s cheerleaders were killed in a single-car crash, a devastating accident that has shocked the whole state. The media reported that the three dead girls were in the car with four other teens, “… when the car left a two-lane highway, went over an embankment and landed upside down.”

My heart breaks for the families and these girls. What caused the 17-year-old driver to lose control of a car carrying such precious cargo? Reports say the kids were “apparently laughing and singing as they headed back from a cheerleading clinic.”

What a horrible Christmas for those friends and families.

This “no more than three passenger” rule needs enforcement – in every state, in every county, in every town – and by every law enforcement officer and every parent.

Maybe it even needs to be extended to age 20, or until the driver has safely owned a full license for two years.