Pennsylvania Lawmakers Strengthen Teen Driving Law

Pennsylvania lawmakers have approved a bill that would impose tough new standards on teenage drivers by limiting the number of passengers they may have, lengthening the amount of training for those with learner’s permits and stiffening penalties for not wearing a seat belt.

“For the hundreds of thousands of parents of teen drivers–or soon-to-be young drivers– this bill offers a way to help keep their teenagers safe,” state Rep. Kathy Watson, the bill’s author, said in a news release.

The proposed legislation, which now awaits Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature, would allow drivers between the ages of 16 ½ and 18 to be accompanied by only one minor passenger for the first six months after licensing, with some exemptions for family members and at times when a parent or legal guardian is present.

After six months, the novice driver could have no more than three unrelated passengers who are under 18.

The bill would also increase from 50 to 65 hours the amount of behind-the-wheel training required of those with learner’s permits, including 10 hours of driving at night and five hours during inclement weather.

The legislation also requires all drivers and minor passengers to buckle up, with younger passengers restrained in child safety or booster seats. Failure to wear proper safety restraints would become a primary offense under the state’s vehicle code, which means that law enforcement officers could pull motorists over just for that offense.

Under existing state law, failure to buckle up is a secondary offense for which officers may cite drivers only if they have stopped them for something else.

“This legislation addresses many of the key strategies needed to reduce serious highway crashes,” Watson said.

State transportation officials say there were nearly 122,000 crashes involving 16- to 19-year-old drivers on Pennsylvania roads that caused more than 1,000 deaths between 2005 and 2009. Fifty-two percent of those crashes resulted from a teen’s inexperience, driving too fast for road conditions, driver distraction or improper turning, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Those statistics are in keeping with national data, which show that drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than their older counterparts to be involved in a crash. Auto accidents account for 1 in 3 teen deaths across the country, making them the leading killer of that age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Teen crashes also rack up billions of dollars in economic costs annually. And because of their greater likelihood of getting into an accident, insurers consider teens a higher risk, making affordable Pennsylvania auto insurance difficult to find for many families with teenagers.

Safety experts say graduated driver licensing (GDL) programs in Pennsylvania and other states can drastically reduce those risks by allowing teens to gain experience in low-risk situations.  According to the CDC, comprehensive GDL systems are associated with reductions of 38 percent in fatal crashes and 40 percent in nonfatal crashes among 16-year-old drivers.

GDL programs include three phases that young drivers must pass through in order to be granted full driving privileges, including a supervised learner’s period, an intermediate license that limits unsupervised driving and a full license after the first two stages are completed.

About Gregor McGavin
Gregor McGavin is an award-winning journalist who has reported across the country for such publications as The Associated Press, the Arizona Republic, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Press-Enterprise.

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