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New rules for teen drivers advance

| Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011

A measure that will tighten restrictions on teen drivers for the first time in more than a decade is closer to becoming law.

Legislators, police and driver safety advocates applauded the bill the House passed on Wednesday and which the governor is expected to sign within 10 days. But many provisions will be hard to enforce, several people concede.

One key component will limit the number of passengers that junior drivers -- those between 16 1/2 and 18 -- can have in their vehicles. The law will limit a driver to one passenger for the first six months after getting a junior license and then, if there are no infractions, up to three passengers until the age of 18.

But, "I have concern that police officers may not be able to determine just from seeing a car with a teen driver go past how long that driver has had his or her license," said state Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks County, author of the bill.

Still, Watson said the bill puts Pennsylvania "so much further along from where we are today" in terms of teen driver safety, and Moon police Chief Leo McCarthy agreed.

"How enforceable it is, I don't know. You can't speculate to pull people over. You have to have probable cause," McCarthy said. "At the same time, the bill sends the right message, and I hope it has a positive impact."

Ed Murphy of Swanson Safeway Driving School in Penn Hills said cars crammed with teens can be a recipe for disaster.

"You get a bunch of other teens in the car, and it prompts (the driver) to want to show off, especially the guys," Murphy said.

Also in the bill, all drivers and passengers younger than 18 would be required to wear seat belts, and police would have the right to stop cars carrying teens who are not wearing them. Behind-the-wheel training requirements also would go up -- to 65 hours from 50 -- with 10 hours to be done at night and five in inclement weather.

Junior drivers who commit traffic offenses will be limited to transporting no more than one passenger.

"PennDOT supports the legislation," said agency spokesman Dennis Buterbaugh. "There are far too many teenagers involved in auto accidents, and we think the bill can help in reducing the number of those crashes."

PennDOT statistics show fatalities in crashes involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers increased 43 percent last year, and more than half of teens killed in crashes were not wearing seatbelts. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says teen drivers are four times more likely to crash than older drivers.

Watson said Pennsylvania will become the 44th state to implement similarly increased restrictions on teen drivers. When she began working on the legislation six years ago, she said, just 11 states had similar measures in place.

"At least we're not last," Watson said.

Gregory G. Grasa, a policy analyst for the House Transportation Committee's Republican caucus, said teen traffic deaths fell 21 percent in states that enacted measures similar to those being implemented in Pennsylvania in the year after they took effect.

Watson said the bill approved yesterday is less stringent than the one she initially proposed, which included a one-passenger limit for all junior drivers until age 18. The Senate amended it to include the one-passenger limit for six months and a cap of three passengers after that.

State Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia County, said rural areas where teens might need to drive long distances to school, extracurricular activities and other places would have been most adversely affected by the one-passenger limit.

"It just seemed impractical," Gordner said.

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