Crashes may prompt new graduated license laws


On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee discussed a bill proposed by the Senate - Senate Bill 636 - that would require teenaged drivers to spend more supervised hours behind the wheel before getting their licenses.

The move comes following several fatal crashes in recent weeks involving teens. Lawmakers say the goal of Senate Bill 636 is to prevent crashes.

"The overall goal is to get them more training behind the wheel with a supervised driver and the other component that's significant is to instill some fear that if they do drive down road 85 miles an hour they could have their license immediately suspended," Sen. David Rouzer said.

Since June 4, nine teens have died and at least eight others have been seriously injured in car crashes.

That includes three deaths in Wake County; two in Asheville and single deaths is Cumberland, Harnett, Edgecombe and Craven counties. Brendan Pearce, 16, the sole survivor of a crash that killed three teens in Wake Forest earlier this month remains in good condition.

Initially, Bill 636 wanted student drivers to log 120 hours of supervised driving with a parent or adult before they head out alone, but on Wednesday afternoon the committee amended it to 60 hours.

"I had to go through the Drivers Ed class, do the in car test, and I had to go to the DMV and take the knowledge test, the signs test," 15-year-old Brandon Hartman said. "We have to drive a whole year before we get our license, so I think you should at least drive 120 hours and it's just better to get the experience and it's safer."

Other amendments to the bill included changing the age for provisional licenses from 18 to 19 and students would face certain restrictions for a longer period of time, such as having a curfew for 12 months instead of six. The bill would also require parents or adults riding with student drivers to sign off on the hours.

"For the most part parents are concerned with their children and how safe their children are on the road, so I would say that the vast majority of people would respect the system and would honestly record their hours," 15-year-old Ben Huysman said.

Rob Foss wonders what else can be done to keep teen drivers safe.

He's a researcher at UNC's Highway Safety Center, who has been studying teen driving patterns since 1993.

"I feel like these things shouldn't be happening, and it's our responsibility as researchers studying this to prevent them," he added.

Foss sees the recent deaths as a tragic string of bad luck rather than as a disturbing trend.

"I think that's just a cluster of crashes that seem to exhibit patterns but really don't," he explained.

Foss says North Carolina's graduated licensing program is about as good as it gets and has helped decrease crashes among 16-year-olds by 38 percent since it went into effect in 1997.

"It's working really well but it hasn't solved the problem," he said.

It is unknown what more the state can do to solve the problem.

"So far as policy approaches or program approaches, there's nothing out there right now that's been shown to work," Foss continued.

But he says there are things parents can do to keep their children safe, including spending plenty of time in the car with them when they begin driving.

"You want them to experience every possible thing they're gonna experience on the road, many times, with you there before they face it on their own," Foss said.

He also encourages parents to put their teens in the safest car the family owns. Typically one that's heavy and large without too much power.

"A car that's meant to go 100 miles an hour is not a car for a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old," Foss pointed out.

Those are simple steps that can go a long way to prevent teen crashes.

"You want to do everything you can because you're talking about the life of your child," he continued.

Speed tends to be a major factor in fatal teen crashes, in addition to having multiple passengers in the car. Foss says the crash rate is at least tripled when four passengers are in a vehicle.

Now that lawmakers have lowered the proposed hours requirement by half, the bill could appear on the House floor within a few days.

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