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Caution: teenage learning curve 2 recent accidents involving junior-license motorists highlight a lack of adherence to laws for young drivers

One common denominator has emerged from two Western New York crashes making front-page headlines in the last 10 days.

And it's not alcohol.

The teens responsible for both the horrific crash that killed five young women in Fairport and the accident that seriously injured a well-known Buffalo police officer in Amherst were driving illegally -- after hours with a junior license.

No one's claiming that there's an epidemic of after-hours illegal drivers on the roads, or that this problem can compare to drunken driving.

But Amherst and Cheektowaga police say they have charged dozens of teen drivers with operating vehicles during prohibited times. That strongly suggests that hundreds of 16- and 17-year-old drivers are ticketed here each year for driving illegally after hours.

The ones who get caught probably are a small fraction of those out on the road at night. That means that hundreds -- if not thousands -- of young people are driving illegally after hours or with too many teens in their vehicle.

The law states that junior drivers who have passed their road test -- typically 16-year-olds or 17-year-olds who haven't completed driver's education -- are not allowed to drive between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., with a few exceptions, unless a parent is in the front seat.

"There's a reason why [the state] restricts young drivers in those time periods," said Lt. Gary Schmidt, who heads the Cheektowaga Traffic Unit. "The reason is that, statistically, they're involved in many more accidents."

"Those two accidents could have happened when [the teens] were allowed to be driving," Amherst police Capt. Timothy Green added. "But they didn't."

And parents are as much to blame as the teen drivers, police say.

"A lot of parents look away and say it's no big deal," said Michael O'Day, president of O'Day's School of Driving.

Under New York's graduated licensing process, teens can take their road test during the six-month waiting period after they get their learner's permit. If they pass, they get a "limited class" junior license that restricts where they can go and allows no more than two nonrelated passengers under 21.

"It's a distraction thing," Schmidt said. "They've got the radio on. They've often got five or six other kids in the car, and they're paying more attention to what's going on in the car than on their driving."

The Fairport crash occurred at about 10 p.m. June 26, when an SUV operated by Bailey Goodman, 17, driving on a junior license, passed a vehicle, returned to its lane, crossed back over the center line and collided head-on with an oncoming truck.

All five teens died on impact, authorities have said.

In the Amherst crash early Wednesday morning, Allen T. Reid, 17, of Williamsville, was driving an SUV that turned in front of a motorcycle on North French Road shortly after 12:30 a.m. The motorcycle operator, off-duty Buffalo Police Officer Carl Andolina, who had been shot last December, remained in serious condition Thursday in Erie County Medical Center's intensive care unit.

Reid was ticketed for failing to yield the right of way and driving after 9 p.m. on a junior license.

Five local police officials interviewed for this story emphasized that they didn't know all the details of either crash. But they all sounded the same concern, that parents need to be more responsible.

"Some of the responsibility should fall back on the parent," Lancaster Capt. RiccardoZuppelli said. "If a kid who's not properly licensed rolls out of your driveway with your $30,000 car, you ought to know about it," Green said.

One problem may be that parents -- and sometimes their children -- don't know the complicated restrictions, especially since graduated licenses were introduced in 2003.

"A lot of these kids, with the new regulations, don't really inform their parents what restrictions they have with their learner's permits and driver's licenses," said O'Day of O'Day's School of Driving.

For example, a teen driving on a "limited class" junior license during the six-month waiting period may drive alone, without a parent, but only back and forth to school, a regular job or medical appointments. O'Day pointed out, though, that the drive to school must be for a credit-bearing school course.

Plenty of teens either believe -- or have told their parents -- they can drive back and forth from crew or hockey practice.

"Absolutely not," O'Day said. "It must be a credit-bearing course."

Other parents apparently know the rules but aren't intent on enforcing them.

Last week, Lackawanna Capt. Ronald Miller stopped a 16-year-old driving with a suspended license in a souped-up car with a big engine that passed him going at least 55 mph in a 30-mph zone.

"Who gives her that car?" he asked. "You see that type of thing all the time."

No one knows exactly how many junior drivers are driving illegally in Western New York.

In Cheektowaga, police officers have given out 41 tickets so far this year to drivers operating in violation of restrictions, Schmidt said. Roughly 70 to 80 percent of those were in violation of junior licenses, he estimated. That suggests that for the full year, the number of such violations would top 50 in that one town.

The number of young drivers similarly ticketed in Amherst in the last 12 months also is close to 50, Capt. Patrick McKenna said.

That's also a tough violation to spot, at night.

"If you're following all the rules of the road, and no parent is there to stop you, it's hard for the police officer to tell you're a junior operator," Lackawanna Lt. William Kukoleca said.

These police officials all agree that inexperience is the huge factor.

But Miller, Lackawanna's chief of detectives, cited two other factors that make teen driving so potentially risky.

One is the relative lack of high school driver-education classes, he said. The other is the proliferation of video games.

"They crash in a video game, and they hit a button," he explained. "There's no reset in life."



Restrictions on drivers with a junior license in New York State:

*May drive anywhere between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. after having a learner's permit for six months.

*May also drive after 9 p.m., but only under one of two conditions:

*Parent, guardian or adult driving instructor must be in the front seat.


*The young person is driving to an academic class in school, a regular job or a medical appointment.

Note: Teens also may get a "limited class" junior license before the end of the six-month waiting period. That license further restricts where and when they can drive. Also, with that license, a driver can have only two non-relatives under 21 in the vehicle, and they must sit in the back seat and wear seat belts.

Sources: Law enforcement and driving school officials.

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