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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Drinking minors are in for major bummer

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer

Lawmakers this year have taken a tough stance on underage drinking, making possession by minors illegal and adding drivers' license suspension to the penalty.

In further efforts to curb other dangerous behavior by minors, the Legislature also passed a bill that would require moped riders under 18 to wear helmets.

The two bills were among several introduced last session to curb teens' risky behaviors, but some, such as measures to criminalize underage smoking or ban violent video games, never made it out of committee.

While some teenagers grouse about the measures that did pass, others say they are a good idea.

Jessica Young, a junior at Kapolei High School, said her peers may not think having a drink is worth risking the loss of driving privileges.

"If there were harsher penalties, they wouldn't do it because they'd be afraid," she said.

Young thinks that all it would take is one friend to lose driving privileges, then everyone would be a lot more cautious.

"A lot of kids would have a hard time if they couldn't drive," she said.

Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona expects the "use and lose" law to have a tremendous impact.

The former Family Court judge said he always got a dramatic reaction when he suspended a juvenile's license.

"If I ever saw them hem and haw and plead, it was then," he said. "It's an effective tool."

Although the bill has not yet been signed by Gov. Linda Lingle, it was introduced by her administration two years in a row and is likely to become law. Aiona said that the only thing that disappointed him in the version that passed was that it will not go into effect until January.

Unless the bill is vetoed, on Jan. 1, those younger than 21 convicted of illegal liquor possession will have their licenses suspended for 180 days, or be ineligible to drive until after they turn 17.

Judges would have the discretion to permit limited driving for those who need to drive for educational or work purposes.

Aiona said the new law will encourage minors to think twice about drinking illegally. "The law says that if you're under 21, you don't drink, period, and that's what it's all about."

A $122 ticket is the penalty minors will face for riding mopeds without a helmet. Lingle signed the bill into law earlier this month.

Young, the Kapolei High School student, said that most of her friends wear helmets when they ride their mopeds.

George Burmeister, owner of Cycle Imports of Hawai'i, doubts the new law will hurt sales.

In fact, he suspects that the majority of minors who ride mopeds probably own helmets, regardless of whether they wear them.

Burmeister will not sell a moped to anyone younger than 18, so teens who come in to buy generally have a parent with them. "Usually the parents are wise enough to buy them a helmet, too," he said.

Craig Terada, 41, who has a couple of mopeds for sale, thinks the helmet law is a good idea. When he was younger, he and two friends got into an accident while riding motorcycles and one of them did not survive.

While mopeds have less power than what he and his friends were riding, he noted, "If you fix them up, they go almost as fast as a motorcycle."

The law will save lives, he said.

However, Terada, who does not wear a helmet himself, would not be surprised if teens resist wearing them.

"It's just uncomfortable," he said. "I like the feeling of the open air and the openness."

Sgt. Robert Lung of the Hono-lulu Police Department Traffic Division said teens often ride mopeds without helmets.

"It has caused a lot of head injuries with moped crashes and that's what we're concerned about. We're trying to protect this age group and prevent them from having fatal injuries," he said.

While the helmet requirement does not apply to more powerful motor scooters or motorcycles, Lung said mopeds are more commonly used by teens.

Lung said that police have not yet begun enforcing the new law because of questions about whether the fine is really meant to be the same as the penalty for riding a moped under the age of 15.

"It's a stiff penalty because what it does is it merges it with having no moped driver's license," he said.

Reach Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com.