Boosting teen driver safety: Lawmakers introduce STARS ActTwo regional lawmakers say they feel that teen death rates are at an unacceptable level so they introduced a new piece of legislation to help combat the problem on roadways in every state. Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced the Students Taking Responsibility for Road Safety Act, or STARS Act, earlier this month to increase teen drivers’ safety.
By: Ben Rodgers, The Jamestown Sun
Two regional lawmakers say they feel that teen death rates are at an unacceptable level so they introduced a new piece of legislation to help combat the problem on roadways in every state.
Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced the Students Taking Responsibility for Road Safety Act, or STARS Act, earlier this month to increase teen drivers’ safety.
“The rate of accidents and fatalities among teen drivers and first-time drivers in the early part of their lives is very, very high, and it’s such a tragedy when we know we can reduce the rate of accidents,” Dorgan said. “What we need to do is focus on safety in areas where we know we can do some good and that’s especially true with teen drivers.”
The STARS Act is a $25 million grant that would be used to launch statewide initiatives to improve teen driver safety. Each state would be guaranteed $200,000.
States for the most part would decide what driver’s safety measures work the best and implement their own usage for the funds, Dorgan said.
“We would really allow the states to develop these strategies,” Dorgan said. “Potentially we are wanting the states to develop pilot programs that would address the issue of teen driving safety and help determine best practices — what works, what kind of things we can do to reduce the rates of accidents.”
The STARS Act would also introduce a national clearinghouse to share those best practices as well as a national advisory council that would study and report on education and prevention strategies.
One area that Dorgan said needs work is distracted driving.
“We also have a kind of new element these days with distracted driving and it especially applies to teens, not exclusively but especially,” he said. “We’re talking about driving while texting, driving while on a cell phone, a whole series of things that distracts a driver’s attention from the road and frankly teens that have less experience in the first instance on the road, having their attention distracted can be fatal.”
One person who has seen the results of distracted driving is Dr. Ron Miller, medical director of Sanford Health’s Children’s Hospital in Fargo.
The 2010 Kids Count Data Book, released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, shows that North Dakota has had an increase in teen death rates by accident, suicide or homicide, per 100,000 from 2004 to 2007, the last year used in the study.
North Dakota currently ranks 44th in the nation with 67 deaths per 100,000 in that category. Hawaii and New York are tied for first with 26 deaths by accident, suicide or homicide per 100,000.
“There’s no question about it, distraction is the major cause of inexperienced teenagers having accidents,” Miller said. “Sometimes minor, sometimes fatalities and the number one distraction is probably other people in the car, the number two distraction, phones, texting that kind of thing.”
Miller said he is in favor of the act but education only goes so far. He said North Dakota needs something all other states have, a graduated drivers’ licensing law.
“There’s nothing wrong with this, we should do this, all states should do this and should try to get the teens to be much involved in this to get them education and learning,” he said. “But there are some things that could clearly help tomorrow if they existed like don’t let teens drive late at night, limit it to one passenger in the car, and I think all teens know that cell phones are distracting.”
Miller is also in favor of one part of the act that would have teens talk to each other about the dangers of inexperienced driving.
“The peer sort of element of telling another peer that’s driving, ‘don’t text and drive,’ that’s what this is about and that would be a good thing.” he said. “But that’s not going to be enough to drop the teenage driving deaths more than a little bit. We need something that’s better and what’s clearly proven better is graduated driver’s licensing systems.”
Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, has served 25 years with the North Dakota Highway Patrol. He is also in favor of a system to limit teen driving before they get their license.
Gruchalla said he wants to see three things change in the current North Dakota drivers’ licensing system.
First is that teens should drive a full year so they are exposed to all the elements, including winter.
Second would be a six-month or yearlong “severe” restriction on teens, limiting the times they can drive to only during the day as well as the number of no related passengers in the car to one.
Finally, Gruchalla said he wants a non-distraction clause that eliminates communication devices for teen drivers.
“If you do that you’ll reduce your crashes by 20 to 40 percent,” he said. “... We’re the only state now that doesn’t have some sort of graduated license. We’re standing out in the field all by ourselves.”
Dorgan is confident the STARS Act will pass when it comes to a vote in September.
“It is something we can easily do within the highway funding itself and something that I think most people think has substantial merit,” he said.
Sun reporter Ben Rodgers can be reached at 701-952-8455 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org