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Archive for Wednesday, February 4, 1998

SAFE AT WHAT AGE? SAFE AT WHAT AGE?

February 4, 1998

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A higher driving age won't necessarily improve the safety record for teen drivers in Kansas.

Raising the legal age for Kansans to get a driver's license sounds like an easy way to decrease traffic accidents involving teen-age drivers.

But taking privileges away isn't always the best way to teach teens to be responsible.

A bill currently being considered in the Kansas Senate would raise the age for an unrestricted driver's license in Kansas from 16 to 17. The bill also would require 50 hours of supervised driving and forbid holders of restricted licenses to drive between midnight and 5 a.m. unless accompanied by someone who is at least 21 years old.

The push for a higher driving age comes from the American Automobile Assn., which cites statistics showing that more than 15 percent of fatal accidents in Kansas in 1996 involved drivers between the ages of 14 and 17. AAA adds that one of every seven drivers in that age group was involved in an accident, compared with one of every 15 drivers older than 17.

The statistics are troubling, but simply making teens wait a year to get unrestricted licenses won't necessarily change the numbers. Requiring more supervised driver training may be more to the point. Simply being a year older won't make a teen any more qualified to drive. Fifty hours of supervised training, on the other hand, might address the real problem of making sure young drivers are ready to safely get behind the wheel.

Barring drivers under 17 from driving without adult supervision between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. seems like a round-about way of helping parents enforce some driving rules they should be setting on their own. Some legislators argue that farm errands (one of the current exemptions on restricted licenses) sometimes require a youngster to drive after midnight or before 5 a.m. However, the vast majority of drivers under 17 have no real business on the road during those hours. Parents might use the law as an additional reason to enforce a curfew on their teen-agers, even though that's something they should be doing on their own.

The biggest problem with placing additional restrictions on teen-age drivers is enforcement. It's impossible for a law enforcement officer to tell the difference between a 16- and 17-year-old behind the wheel without checking the driver's license. There already are plenty of teens who violate restricted licenses, sometimes with the blessing of their parents. Their claims of being on their way to a school function or running a farm errand are difficult to verify and officers can't afford to take the time to stop every young driver and check out his or her destination.

This doesn't mean that Kansans shouldn't be concerned with the number of young teen-agers who are involved in accidents each year. Requiring additional driver training seems like a positive step. Getting young drivers off the road in the wee hours of the morning might also help. But arbitrarily raising the driving age would be unfair to the many 16-year-olds -- and their parents -- who are ready to accept the responsibility of a driver's license.

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