Teenage accident 'vaccine' on tap
Tracy L. Brady, Hartselle Enquirer
Nationally, 16-year-olds are responsible for more traffic accidents than any other age group, less likely to wear seatbelts and account for 31 percent of traffic deaths-and state lawmakers don't want Alabama teens to become part of those statistics.
Alabama will enact a new graduated driver's license program for first-time drivers on Oct. 1.
Starting at age 15 and continuing through age 17, new drivers will prove their driving experience by successfully completing a three-level merit system.
The ultimate goal is to obtain an unrestricted driver's license.
State Rep. John Hawkins, R-Vestavia, succeeded with his fourth attempt to pass Alabama's own graduated driver's license bill in April with sponsorship from state Rep. Ronald Grantland, D-Hartselle.
"This is not a bill to punish teenage drivers," Grantland said. "It's a bill to save their lives."
Grantland said the number of teen traffic deaths is fairly large in Morgan County. States with similar license laws have seen dramatic results in the reduction of teen deaths.
"Alabama loses about 160 teens every year to traffic accidents," Grantland said. "It's a disease and this law is the vaccine."
According to Grantland, teen traffic accidents have decreased by 23 percent in North Caroline, 25 percent in Louisiana, 27 percent in Michigan, 62 percent in New York and 69 percent in Pennsylvania since graduated license laws were enacted.
"Teenagers may think it's a burden," Grantland said. "But if we see even a 20 percent reduction each year, which amounts to 25 to 30 lives, the law has been successful."
Grantland said the law is not as restrictive as it first seems. He believes, over time, the new license law procedures will become routine for teens, their parents and law enforcement.
"Driving is a right, not a privilege," Grantland said. "Teen drivers will not be harassed by police. The burden will be on themselves."
But local police think it's not so cut and dry.
"It's nice to have a bill, but does it have any bite?" Hartselle Police Chief Ron Merkh said.
Merkh is concerned teen drivers will disregard the new law because it has no real consequences. Violators will basically receive warnings, not tickets or fines, and only be penalized under the new license law if a normal moving traffic violation is committed.
"I don't think it will give them more experience as drivers," Merkh said. "I do think it will lessen their distractions while driving, though."
Less distractions because teen drivers will only be allowed to chauffeur three or less passengers.
"Sixty-seven percent of teen passengers killed were in a vehicle with another teen," Grantland said. "One teenage passenger riding with a teenage driver increases the chances of an accident by 13 percent. Reducing the number of passengers allowed reduces the chance of an accident."
Merkh admitted the new license law is difficult to sort through, but shouldn't be difficult to enforce.
"It will be very difficult for officers to disprove parental permission forms," Merkh said. "But teen drivers won't be able to skirt the curfew and number of passengers in the car."
According to Grantland, parents won't be expected to sign a permission slip every time their teen gets behind the wheel.
"A signed statement from a parent or guardian kept in the glove compartment will suffice," Grantland said.
Grantland believes curfew enforcement, by parents and law enforcement, is the most important aspect of the new law. With little exception, 16-year-old drivers will not be allowed on roads between midnight and 6 a.m.
"Forty-three percent of teen traffic deaths occur between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.," Grantland said. "However, this period of time only accounts for 20 percent of their total driving time."
According to statistics compiled by the Hartselle Police Department, most local accidents occur between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Merkh said the majority of fatal accidents, for whatever reason, do occur late at night.
"Basically this law tells teens to drive well and be home at a descent hour," Merkh said. "Stop and think about it, a driver who obeys the law becomes a safe driver."