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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Teens Behind the Wheel: A Driving Force

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A teen-aged driver was at the wheel of this vehicle involved in a March 29 crash in Pownal, Vt..
A proposal to banish teen-aged youth from vehicle driver's seats until they are well over age 16 drew mixed reaction from Northern Berkshire region residents.

Increased Driver's License Age

A proposal being put together by the Massachusetts Joint Transportation Committee would, if approved, hike the state's legal driver's licensing age to 17 1/2, and force youngsters to wait until age 16 1/2 before being able to seek a learner's permit. The proposal also calls for youth to hold a learner's permit for 12 months, rather than the current six-month requirement for drivers under age 17.

The reported levels of vehicle crashes and crash fatalities involving young drivers in the state are the catalyst for the proposed changes.

Just Say "No"

Several Northern Berkshire residents said that there are already controls in place that could keep immature or irresponsible youth from sliding into the driver's seat.

Parents are required to sign learner permit and driver's license consent forms for minor children, and can refuse to give consent if they believe their children are not ready to handle driving responsibilities, said Jason Soha. In most cases, parents must also cover their driving offspring that are under 18 years old on their vehicle insurance policy.

"Parental consent is necessary for kids to get their license," Soha said. "I think it's a judgement parents should make."

Age is not always an indicator of maturity, said Soha.

"I know people who are 25 and shouldn't have a driver's license," he said.

Sherri Gaffey's daughter is 14 years old and is looking forward to acquiring her junior driver's license at 16 1/2, Gaffey said.

"My daughter will be bummed if she can't drive [at 16 1/2]," Gaffey said. "But I wouldn't oppose [changing the age to 17 1/2]. What's another year in the scheme of things?"

20-24 Statistics Not Rosy, Either

Nationwide fatal accident statistics involving drivers between 15 and 20 years of age are dismal. According to information collected by the Insurance Information Institute, which includes data from the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, during 2004, 6,900 drivers under age 20 were involved in fatal car crashes nation-wide.

There were 9,369,000 drivers under age 20 in 2004, according to the statistics, and of that total, 2,690,000 were involved in numerous types of accidents, including single and multiple vehicle crashes, and accidents that did not result in fatalities.

However, the statistics for drivers that are age 20 and over do not show a significant improvement; according to the information, of 16,907,000 drivers aged 20-24 during 2004, 9,000 were involved in accidents that resulted in fatalities.

Several people interviewed for this article agreed to comment only if they were not identified, and said that they believe older drivers are a greater highway threat than younger drivers.

Older Drivers

Older drivers drive too slowly, are not careful about exiting intersections, parking lots, and side streets, and appear oblivious to what is happening around them, said several individuals.

"If they are going to take it from one end [increasing driving age for youth], then they should take it from the other end, too," said one woman. "I honestly believe that older people should be re-tested with a road test every two years. I say this as someone who is no spring chicken."

According to the institute information, during 2004, there were 16,226,000 drivers aged 65-74 on the nation's roadways. Of that number, 4,000 were involved in fatal motor vehicle accidents. There were 12,581,000 drivers over age 74 on the roads during 2004; 5,300 were involved in fatal crashes, according to the statistics.

One adult male argued that teens, young adults, and those who are under retirement age are likely driving more frequently than those age 65 or older, and suggested that a significant difference in "road hours" could skew the statistics.

Too Far To Walk...

Kathy Poirot is the mother of a teen-aged male who could earn his driver's license within the next two years under current laws.

"When I was 16 years old, I was lucky enough to have a job that I could walk to," she said. "A lot of kids can't walk to their job. In places like Savoy and Florida there isn't any employment and kids need to work. There is no public transportation in those communities."

Poirot agreed that parents do have the ability to refuse to sign consent forms for youth driver's licenses, but added that most parents don't consider refusing to give their consent.

During discussion that occurred as part of the interview, Poirot agreed that imposing very strict penalties on licensed drivers under age 18 who violate traffic laws such as speeding might offer an alternative to raising the driver's license age. "Strict penalties" could include driver's license suspensions of significant length. While someone may be somewhat more mature at age 17 1/2 than at 16 1/2 years old, driver inexperience is probably similar at any age, she agreed.

Almost all those interviewed said that use of cell phones while a person is driving should be deemed illegal.

Adams Police Chief Donald Poirot said that the proposed change would mean safer state highways because the number of drivers on the roads would be decreased.

But whether that translates into a safer youth driving population remains to be seen, he said.

"Do you measure maturity by age or by the individual," he said.

Poirot noted that legislators make laws and law enforcement officers and entities are required to enforce the laws made.

"I really don't know what difference [the proposed change] would make," he said. "We are here to enforce the laws. Let the legislators make the laws."

Numerous detailed motor vehicle and driver safety reports are available a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration www.nhsta.dot.gov Internet web site.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or at 802-823-9367.
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