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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 22, 2004

Proposed license changes target Hawai'i teenagers

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Hawai'i teenagers would have to wait an extra year to receive the full privileges of a driver's license under several measures moving forward at the Legislature.

At a glance

• Presently: Teens may get a permit at 15 1/2 and a full driver's license at 16, provided they have completed an approved driver-education program.

• Under the legislation: Still eligible for a permit at 15 1/2, but after six months would qualify for a provisional license, provided an approved driver-education program is completed. Would only be eligible for a full license after satisfactorily holding a provisional license for at least six months and reaching age 17.

After several years of trying, lawmakers this session appear ready to pass a new graduated license program, which supporters say will reduce the number of young people hurt or killed in auto accidents.

The program would create a new "provisional" class of driver's license for young people who have had a learner's permit for six months but are not yet 17 years old.

Presently, teens qualify for a full license at 16, but under the legislation would have to be at least 17 to be eligible.

Holders of the provisional license would be barred from driving late at night unless accompanied by a parent or guardian and would be limited to the number of unrelated young people they could have in the car at any time.

"I think it's a good idea, especially with all the boys driving around so fast at night," said Thom Nguyen, who waited nervously Friday morning while her 17-year-old son, Anthony, took (and passed) his driver's license road test at the Kalihi testing station.

Anthony, a McKinley High School student, shook his head emphatically no a few minutes later when asked if he wanted his mother tagging along in the car for another six months.

"No way," he said. "I'm a safe driver and it will be easier for me to get to work and sports now that I have my own license."

At least 43 other states have adopted a similar program, and studies show a drop in the number of crashes involving 16-year-old drivers where graduated licenses have been put in place. National statistics show that one-third of all fatal crashes involving teens take place between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., even though only 15 percent of the miles driven by teens occur in those hours.

Young drivers are at risk because they "lack experience, often drive at night, have multiple passengers — usually young — may have used alcohol and/or other drugs before driving and often don't wear seatbelts," said Carol McNamee, a public policy chairman for MADD-Hawai'i.

Dr. Linda Rosen, the deputy state health director and mother of a 13-year-old daughter, said the bill helps address the leading cause of death in the 15- to 17-year-old age group.

"I can't imagine why we wouldn't want to pass it," she said.

Many parents will welcome having a law that protects children, she added.

"As a mother myself, I appreciate having the authority of the law to appeal to when your child argues with you about the car, as they always do," she said.

The graduated license measures have advanced further and have a better chance of passing this year, but differences between the House and Senate bills could still cause problems, she said.

Under the measures being considered in both the state House and Senate, a person who had a learner's permit for six months would be eligible for the new provisional license at age 16.

The license would be valid for normal use, except between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., and provided that everyone in the car used a seatbelt. Also, there are limits on the number of unrelated people under 18 in the car.

"That's reasonable," said Suzette Nagel, a 23-year-old college student. "When you are young and have friends in the car, it's natural to want to show off a little bit. Everything bad always seems to happen in the early morning hours."

Nagel said parents should already be laying down a similar law for their kids.

"Parents should enforce those rules on their own, but a lot of times they buy a car and the next day their kids get into an accident," she said.

Nagel's mother, Susan, agreed.

"Seventeen or even 18 is too young," she said. "They get their license and then you have to stay up all night wondering if they're safe."

The bills at the Legislature (SB2023 and HB2290) have support this year from several safety groups, the state Transportation, Health and Education departments, and Honolulu police.

In past years, however, the bills have been bottled up over concerns about how they would affect some legal drivers, including students on Neighbor Islands and those who work late at night.

This year's House bill exempts drivers heading to and from late-night school events or those driving to or from work. The Senate bill allows only a work exemption. "The schools will adjust the times of their events for the new rules," Senate Transportation Chairman Cal Kawamoto said.

The Senate version of the bill also would allow no more than one unrelated person under 18 in the car at any time; the House version bars all unrelated people under 18. The bills would not apply to motorcycle riders.

Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.