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GETTING TOUGH ON YOUNG DRIVERS?

At 16, there are more pressing concerns in Andrea Reed's life than getting a driver's license.

Well, one, anyway.

"I want to get a lead part in the musical next year," said Andrea, just starting her junior year at Niagara-Wheatfield High School. "A driver's license would be number two."

Like many people her age, Andrea is focused on the day she can drive at night by herself. In New York, 16-year-olds like Andrea who've passed an approved driver's education class and earned their blue card can earn full driving rights on their 17th birthday.

No more having to cut those trips to the Galleria Mall short because of the 9 p.m. limit on a learner's restricted license. "My half-birthday was last week," marking six months to go, said Andrea. "I'm counting down the days."

But Andrea might have to add a few months to her countdown if state lawmakers approve a proposal to toughen teen licensing rules. The bill, presently in the State Assembly, would add New York to the growing list of states rethinking how easily teens can earn full driving privileges.

The biggest change would hit 17-year-old license-holders who want to drive at night. Today, learner's permit holders who pass their road test and earn their "blue card" in a driver's education class can obtain a full license.

The new rules wouldn't allow that before drivers were 17 1/2 years old, at least.

In general, the new rules are much more detailed, giving police officers many more reasons to ticket rookie drivers.

Here's an example. Today, learner's permit holders only need someone older than 18 with a driver's license to accompany them on their drives.

Under the new rules, the license holder would have to be:

1. older than 21

2. your parent or someone with written permission from a parent to accompany you

3. the only other person in the front seat

4. wearing a seat belt

It's not a coincidence that the proposed changes also add the first specific rules for yanking rookie drivers' privileges for as little as one speeding ticket or two less serious traffic tickets.

New York is actually behind the curve when it comes to toughening its attitude toward beginning drivers. So far, 34 states have toughened their laws regarding teen driver licensing. Some have made 16-year-old drivers keep probationary licenses for a year or more. Others restrict driving hours, driving without a parent in the car, or driving carloads of teens, unless they're relatives.

American legislators have gotten stricter with young drivers because statistics show that they're involved in serious car crashes -- killing themselves and others, or putting people in the hospital -- far more than average drivers.

In 1996, drivers age 15 to 20 made up 7 percent of all drivers, according to the American Automobile Association. But they were involved in 14 percent of crashes that ended up with someone dead. Altogether, that 7 percent of the driving population was involved in 20 percent of all crashes.

So making new drivers keep restricted licenses longer should, on average, allow more of them to learn their road lessons during the day. That should lower the number and severity of bad accidents, which occur mainly at night.

That's the theory, at least.

Now, few teens argue that bad driving shouldn't be punished. But it's no surprise, either, that responsible drivers chafe at remaining restricted.

"I think if the person isn't responsible, they should have it taken away," said Adam Bowman, a 16-year-old Niagara Falls driver who's had his learner's permit since five days after his birthday. "I don't have a problem with that."

Adam has set about fulfilling the Department of Motor Vehicles rules. He just finished his driver's education course, and has his blue card. He passed his Aug. 17 road test with flying colors.

Now all he has to do is wait for his 17th birthday, and he can drive after the 9 p.m. curfew. "At least now I don't have to leave my girlfriend's house at 8:30," he said.

The news that the rules might change didn't make him happy. Six additional months of not being allowed to drive at night will cramp the lives of plenty of teens, Adam said. "A teenager's night doesn't start until after 9," the hour the driving curfew starts. "That'll ruin everything. Movies don't even start till 9:45."

Adam has a bigger problem with the proposed rules: playing hockey for the Niagara-Wheatfield Falcons.

The practices often start at 10 p.m. in North Tonawanda, when the ice time at Sabreland is more affordable.

Adam might have been able to take advantage of an exception to the nighttime driving ban, specifically allowing teens to drive at night to "school events."

But his team isn't funded by the school, so it doesn't qualify as a school event under state law.

He's been on the team, playing defenseman, for two years. If he can't drive at night at 17, he can't get a ride every time.

"It would probably involve me missing a lot of practices," he said. "And not playing in games."

There is one ray of hope for Adam. Given the snail's pace of politics in Albany these days, there's no guarantee that the bill cracking down on teen drivers will be on the fall agenda. It passed the state Senate but has stalled in the Assembly, said Carolyn Harding, spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association. "It might not happen this year," Ms. Harding said.

Then even if Gov. Pataki signed it into law, more months could pass before it took effect.

There's a decent chance Adam will beat the bill. Then it'll be other 16-year-olds' chance to worry.

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