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Thursday, June 12, 2008

New teen driving laws are working

By Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

It's been nearly eight years since the graduated driver's license law went into effect for young drivers.

Terry Mayer/The Week

With both hands on the wheel, Amy Matthews faces the next turn with driving instructor Jim Fischer giving directions.
In that time, injuries for 16- and 17-year-old drivers have dropped roughly 30 percent, according to statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

The law puts nighttime driving and passenger and other restrictions on drivers 16 and 17 years old.

Statewide, in the five-year period before GDL in 16- and 17-year-olds, there were 6,269 auto accidents with driver injuries. In the five years after, there were 3,999, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

There were 59 auto accidents with driver fatalities in the five-year period before GDL in 16- and 17-year-olds, and 51 in the five years after.

One change with the most impact on individual driver's is the rule that allows only one passenger. For the first nine months after earning a probationary drivers license, drivers can have only one non-immediate family member in the car with them while they're driving.

"More than one parent, guardian, brother, sister or step-family member are OK," said Jim Fischer, instructor at Trident Drivers School, Elkhorn. "But not grandmas, grandpas, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, cats or dogs."

Fisher instructs driver educations courses in many Walworth County high schools and rattles out this rule fluently enough to know he's said it hundreds of times, at least.

Terry Mayer/The Week
Driver ed student Amanda Knapp just completed her "class" with driving instructor Fischer as Amy Matthews waits her turn.
Amy Matthews, a Delavan-Darien High School senior, agrees with the vast majority of students interviewed that the "only one friend rule" is the biggest drag of all of the changes.

"I get frustrated," she said. "If a group of us want to go somewhere we have to take like five cars."

She doesn't feel that having another friend or two in the back seat would add enough distraction to be dangerous, especially since she's completed the entire driving course successfully and her skills have improved over time.

"I'm a lot better driver than I was in the beginning," she says. "And if they're just riding like they should, it wouldn't make a big difference."

Another high-impact change is the six-month minimum between the time a driver is issued a learner's permit and the time they can get their probationary license.

"Before that point in time you could conceivably take the class and get a license in three weeks," Fischer said. "And we would have kids and their parents who would literally try to get it done in three weeks.

"There's no real practice time in there," he continued. "So what's the point? In that amount of time new drivers still think that driving only consists of steering and braking."

This common-sense change is thoroughly a good one in Fischer's opinion.

"Now that it's six months no matter what, I believe we're all safer on the roads."

Along the same lines of high-impact changes is the provision that mandates if a probationary driver gets stopped by the police for any traffic violation, they have to wait an extra six months before getting their regular license.

"For a teen, that's a long time," Fischer says. "But it helps them take their licenses seriously once they do get them."

Fischer says the GDL has markedly changed students' attitudes and skill levels compared to beginning drivers of the past.

"Once the new laws kicked in, kids started coming in much better prepared for the test and as better drivers than the kids we had before," he said.

While it's frustrating that more complete statistics aren't readily available (injury/fatality rates of passengers of teen drivers; injury/fatality rates of drivers and passengers in other cars involved in accidents with cars driven by teen; statistics before 2000; etc.), it still remains quite clear nearly eight years out that the GDL changes have improved beginners' driving skills and lowered the number of young drivers--and all drivers and passengers--being injured and killed in those first inexperienced years behind the wheel.

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GDL provisions for drivers under 18

--- Must hold instruction driving permit 6 months before getting probationary license.

--- More practice time (30 hours) before instruction permit holders can receive a probationary license.

--- Instruction permit holders must be free of driving violations for six months before getting probationary license.

--- Probationary drivers are taken off of the road more quickly for multiple driving offenses and have to wait longer before getting their standard drivers license.

--- Probationary drivers can drive alone or have only one non-immediate-family passenger for first nine months.

--- Probationary drivers may not drive midnight-5 a.m. except commuting between home, work and school for first nine months.

*Source: Wisconsin Department of Transportation

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