N.D. teens ambivalent about new driving rulesAustin Emineth got nervous when he first heard of the North Dakota Legislature’s plans to make teenage drivers hold their instructional permit longer.
By: By Trevor Born, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK — Austin Emineth got nervous when he first heard of the North Dakota Legislature’s plans to make teenage drivers hold their instructional permit longer.
Fearing an extra six months of depending on his parents to schlep him around town, he resolved to get a permit as soon as he turned 14. He did, and in January he received what teenagers in no other state can: a driver’s license at 14 years, six months of age.
Though the bill that spooked Emineth two years ago failed, the Legislature approved a similar measure this month, ending North Dakota’s time as the only state that lets teenagers drive without supervision at 14 1/2 years. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who supports new restrictions on teen drivers, is expected to sign it.
“I heard they’re actually doing it this year, and all I can say is I’m glad I already have my license. Because that would be rough,” said Emineth, now a ninth-grader at Simle Middle School in Bismarck.
Starting Jan. 1, drivers who want a license before turning 16 must hold their permit for a year, which supporters say will reduce accidents and save lives.
Licensed drivers younger than 16 won’t be able to drive after 9 p.m. — unless they’re returning from work, school or a religious activity — and teens under 18 may not use a cell phone while they drive.
Emineth’s parents own an extra vehicle and let him drive it to school three days a week. He said his life has improved “dramatically” since he stopped relying on his parents for rides.
Emineth sympathizes with his friend Ryan Knudson, also a Simle ninth-grader, whose parents have kept him from getting a learner’s permit because of safety worries. If Knudson doesn’t get the permit by year’s end, he’ll be restricted to driving with adults for six months more than he’d previously expected.
“I definitely don’t want that,” said Knudson, who had to hitch rides from teammates to after-school football practice at Bismarck High School last fall. “You just kind of need to drive yourself sometimes, especially when you play sports.”
The bill’s supporters say the six-month instructional period in existing state law doesn’t give young drivers enough experience, and allows teens to get their licenses without ever driving on snow and ice.
Car accidents are the leading killer of teenagers in the North Dakota, accounting for about 39 percent of teen deaths, according to the state Department of Transportation.
“This is not about teenagers doing intentionally stupid or dangerous things. It’s about human learning,” said Rob Foss, director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina. “Humans make lots of mistakes when they start doing something that’s kind of complicated.
“Early on, you’re still focused on keeping the car in the lane and not running over the curb when you turn, things an experienced driver doesn’t even think about,” he said. “So you’re not noticing important things in the periphery, like whether that car in the distance is going too fast to stop at its stop sign.”
Middle-schoolers who are now licensed to drive said driving in snow, learning to pump their brakes while stopping on ice, and checking blind spots were among the skills they lacked when they started driving.
The new law says once teenage drivers get an instructional permit, they must drive at least 50 hours with an adult in a variety of conditions before they receive a license. The only enforcement is a sworn document the driver and parent are required to sign saying the 50 hours were completed, but supporters say it sets a good standard.
States that add restrictions on young drivers have seen teen crashes reduced by up to 30 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Supporters say fewer accidents will lower the costs of insurance for teen drivers.
“A serious head injury takes hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the system,” said Pat Ward, a lobbyist for the Association of North Dakota Insurers. “If we can eliminate some of those accidents, it’ll surely translate into savings.”
Some teens who don’t have a license agreed with the notion that they need more practice before driving alone. Simle eighth-grader Cody DeWitt, who doesn’t turn 14 until August and could be affected by the change, said it’s in his best interest.
“It doesn’t really bother me that much,” he said. “I’d have trouble getting to some sports and stuff, but it’d give me more driving time with supervision. I think I’d be a better driver in the end.”
Eighth-grader Teri Lardy assumed more driving time with adults would improve her driving skills beyond what she learned in driver’s education. Lardy said she’s held a permit since January, but she doesn’t know when she’ll get a license. Her parents will decide when she’s ready.
“I think it’ll make the roads a whole lot safer for everyone out there,” Lardy said. “But a lot of people aren’t very happy about it.”
Students pointed out that some of the most dangerous distractions, such as loud music and rowdy passengers, aren’t banned. The original bill limited how many passengers a driver younger than 18 could carry, but that provision was removed in the final version.
A group of organizations that backed the bill plans to push for a passenger restriction again in 2013, according to Chuck Clairmont, executive director of the North Dakota Safety Council.
“Limiting passengers is something we felt strongly about, because of all the data showing such higher risks with more teens in the car,” Clairmont said. “But North Dakota is a tough state for getting things passed, so we’re happy we at least got a step in the right direction.”
Teenagers interviewed by The Associated Press agreed that texting while driving, which the Legislature recently banned for all drivers, shouldn’t be allowed. But they were split on whether the state should keep young drivers from talking on cellphones.
Bismarck Shiloh Christian freshman Jade Neumann said the restriction goes too far.
“First they tell you that you can’t text, and I get that, but not being able to talk is a little ridiculous,” she said.
Senior Zane Miller said cell phone chatting is dangerous for young drivers who haven’t learned to multitask.
“There’s a lot of distracting things people do, though, like eating or putting on makeup or whatever else,” he said. “Even if you can outlaw one of them, it’s still not really making a dent in distracted driving because there are so many other things going on.”
Even driving with parents, which the new law encourages, can be among the distractions that make it harder to concentrate on the road, some students said.
“It’s kind of weird. Having my parents in the car put a lot more stress on me,” Emineth said. “My mom would pretty much lose her voice every time. Once I got my license, the first day or two were scary, but after that I was definitely a better driver without them.”