Tougher license law

Published:

The Kentucky Post

Ten years ago, when the General Assembly first passed a graduated drivers license law, advocates noted that Kentucky had the worst teen traffic fatality rate in the nation.

Now the Legislature is talking about again toughening Kentuckys licensing laws for new teenage drivers. Theres good reason to do so: although the commonwealths teen traffic fatality rankings have improved slightly, Kentucky is still one of the deadliest states in the nation.

Teenagers account for just 6 percent of all licensed drivers in Kentucky, but are involved in about 18 percent of all fatal accidents and more than 20 percent of all wrecks on the highway.

To its credit, the House this week passed a bill that would establish a new set of requirements for teen drivers, chiefly an intermediate period between a learners permit and a full, unrestricted license.

At present, according to officials at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, 39 states and the District of Columbia have what are regarded as full graduated drivers license programs. Kentucky is not among that number.

Kentucky officials say that states which have gone to full programs have recorded a drop of between 15 percent and 20 percent in the teen traffic fatality rate. Rep. Tom Burch, the Louisville Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, puts it in more compelling terms. Had Kentucky adopted such a measure four years ago, he says, as many as 300 teenagers might have been saved.

Under Kentuckys current law (which the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates as marginal), at age 16 a child may take a written test that qualifies them for a learners permit allowing them to drive in the company of an adult. After at least 180 days, they may test for a provisional drivers license, good until they turn 18. They must also complete a four-hour course and, until they are 21, abide by a zero-tolerance policy regarding alcohol and illegal drugs.

The bill passed this week would stipulate that young drivers must complete at least 60 hours behind the wheel, including 10 hours at night, during their learner permit period. Then, if they havent gotten any moving violations, they would enter a 180-day intermediate period during which they would not be allowed to have more than one passenger under age 20 in the car (other than family members) or (except in emergencies) drive between midnight and 6 a.m.

Ohio has a more robust graduated licensing system, one rated Fair by the highway safety institute. It requires a 50-hour training period, but allows teens to get learner permits as early as age 15 and a half.

Some highway safety advocates are starting to beat the drums for a push to persuade states to raise the minimum driving age to 17 or higher, on grounds that brain research shows that older teens are somewhat more mature and less prone to making rash decisions behind the wheel. Graduated licenses are a step in that direction, because they effectively delay the start of unrestricted driving privileges.

Kentucky, however, has been sluggish even about toughening its teen driver laws.

Even though he has seen his graduated licensing overhaul pass the House three times before, only to die in the Senate, Burch says he is optimistic the fourth try will be a charm. We certainly hope so.

This is a bill that really ought to transcend politics and the other tripwires in Frankfort. It deserves prompt consideration, and an affirmative vote, in the Senate.

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