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Re-examining teen driving laws

The deaths of five 2007 Fairport High School graduates in a horrific car crash outside Rochester were an all too often reminder for Diane Magle.

"It just brings back everything," said Magle, a Buffalo resident whose daughter, Katie, was 17 in 2005 when she died as a passenger in a car, driven by another teenager, that struck a tree in Orchard Park.

"We know how those parents feel," she added. "They have no idea how this is going to affect their life. It changes everything."

For Magle and others, it's time to revisit state laws covering teen drivers.

They point to new restrictive laws adopted by California, Illinois and other states and suggest New York's laws make it too easy for inexperienced drivers to get behind the wheel.

And the consequences, they say, are sobering: about 26,000 fatal and personal injury car crashes in New York State in 2005 involving drivers ages 16 to 20, according to the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research at the University at Albany.

Almost sixty percent of those crashes were upstate, where the laws regulating teen drivers are, in some cases, less restrictive than downstate.

"If I had to go talk to somebody in Albany, I'd bring my picture of my daughter and just tell them this is the heartbreak and sorrow that changes your life," Magle said.

In 2002, New York passed new licence rules, joining several other states in placing more restrictions on teen drivers. The graduated license rules state drivers under 18 must have a learner's permit for at least six months before receiving a junior license.

But other states have since passed New York and have tried to do more to lessen the death rates of teen drivers.

New York has different restrictions on teen drivers based on where they live. Teen drivers upstate have the least restrictive regulations compared with those for New York City and Long Island teens.

Safety officials say that many teenage drivers, who die at higher rates than older drivers, are beset by lack of maturity and experience that contribute to accidents caused by distractions, driver error and inability to handle poor road conditions.

One of the tragic results, they claim, are the number of young drivers involved in fatal car accidents: 200 in New York State in 2005 alone and, according to state records compiled by The Buffalo News, 50 in Erie and Niagara counties from 2003 to 2005.

In one provision criticized by safety officials, New York permits two nonfamily passengers to ride in a car driven by someone holding a junior license. Technically, drivers as young as 16 1/2 can get a junior license in New York.

Some other states permit no other passengers for a period of time or just one other passenger under 21 in a car with a teen driver.

"There's quite a big difference between one and two passengers just in terms of what it means for the social dynamic in a vehicle," said Anne McCartt, senior vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group funded by the insurance industry.

McCartt also questioned the New York law that permits drivers at age 17 to get a full license if they have a junior or limited junior license and have finished a driver education program. Permitting teens to more quickly graduate from an intermediate phase to a full license "is not wise, and there is a negative safety consequence," she said.

New York requires teen drivers to have 20 hours of supervised driving and five hours of classroom time during the learner's permit period before they can take a road test. Nineteen other states require 50 or more such hours.

Some states have also moved to ban cell phones and text messaging devices for teen drivers. But not New York. A report on the Fairport fatalities last week revealed that text messages were made from the driver's cell phone shortly before the car collided with a tractor-trailer. The report could not reveal who was text messaging.

In addition, other states have stricter penalties for teenagers convicted of drunken driving and other infractions.

The restrictions of teen driving laws matter, experts say. A Johns Hopkins University study last year found reductions of 18 percent to 21 percent in fatal crashes of 16-year-old drivers in states with more comprehensive teen driving restrictions, such as mandatory permit holding periods and at least 30 hours of supervised driving.

Troubling to some experts is something that distinguishes New York from every other state: It is alone in setting different rules for teen drivers living in different regions of the state. New York City, by far, has the most restrictive rules for teens, followed by Long Island and, in some cases, the northern suburbs of New York City.

Upstate rules are more lenient when it comes to when teens can drive and for what purposes.

Sixty-four percent of the state's drivers between 16 and 20 years old reside upstate, according to the SUNY traffic safety institute.

When the state passed its last teen driving laws in 2002, upstate lawmakers -- in a bow to parents and employers concerned about teens getting to school and jobs in a region with limited mass transit options -- insisted on the looser standards for upstate.

Lawmakers in 2002 said the differences reflected the obvious contrasts between driving in, say, Brooklyn versus Cattaraugus County. But some safety experts say there are plenty of states with diverse urban and rural areas that have not gone the route taken by New York.

Information about teen drivers over a long period of time and by county was not immediately available from the Department of Motor Vehicles or the U.S. Department of Transportation. But there is a snapshot for 2005 for Erie and Westchester counties, two areas with similarly sized populations. The number of licensed drivers for the counties was not available from the DMV, however.

In 2005, 14 teenage drivers in Erie County were involved in fatal accidents, and there were 2,741 total accidents involving drivers between the ages of 16 and 20.

That same year in Westchester County, three teenage drivers were involved in fatal crashes, and there were 1,995 accidents involving drivers ages 16 to 20.

"I don't think it's a good idea to have disparity," said Judith Stone, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-based alliance of health care, consumer, safety and insurance groups. "Certainly, within a state you don't need different requirements when traveling from one part of the state to another."

Stone said New York's teen driving laws get a mix of good and cautionary marks. She praised New York's entry age of 16 -- some states allow 15-year-olds to drive -- and restrictions on nighttime driving.

But she said New York should look to other states that have given more protections to teen drivers -- and others who share the road with them.

Magle said the state can take several steps to improve the safety of teen drivers.

While she said she believes the driving age should be raised, she said the state should enact stiffer penalties for teen drivers involved in accidents and do more to enforce existing laws, while also providing more opportunities for driver education courses.

Requiring teens involved in accidents to speak to other teens about the dangers of driving and more strictly limiting how many teens can be passengers in cars might work, she said.

Her daughter was one of four teens in the car on the night she died.

Magle's surviving daughter, who was also in the car with her older sister, now suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.

"You don't realize the lives that it touches and how your life is ruined," she said.


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