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Archive for Sunday, February 22, 1998

AUTO CLUB SAYS DRIVING-AGE DEBATE TO ROLL ON

February 22, 1998

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— Despite setbacks, attempts to raise the driving age in Kansas will continue, says an AAA spokesman.

Mitch Fuqua hasn't given up on raising the age for unrestricted driver's licenses in Kansas from 16 to 17.

Fuqua, a spokesman for the American Automobile Assn., says despite losing a battle in a Kansas Senate committee last week, he'll fight on.

``We're going to spend the rest of the session and the rest of the year just trying to educate the public as best as we can,'' Fuqua said.

AAA had pushed a bill this session that would have raised the age for a full driver's license to 17. It also would have required those with learner's permits to get 50 hours of supervised driving before they could get their restricted licenses.

A parent or a guardian would have had to sign an affidavit saying the driver had completed at least 50 hours of actual driving, with 10 of those hours at night.

The AAA-backed bill would have also prohibited drivers with restricted licenses from being behind the wheel between midnight and 5 a.m. And if drivers with restricted licenses were convicted of two or more traffic violations, they would have to wait until age 18 to get a full license.

However, the Senate Transportation and Tourism Committee radically changed the bill so that most of the state's current law remains intact.

``It became too weak to do any good,'' Fuqua said.

For that reason, AAA pulled its support from the bill, he said.

Rural opposition

``We got bogged down with a lot of the rural legislators. They were concerned it was going to hurt the kids' ability to help out on the farm,'' Fuqua said.

He said he had difficulty convincing legislators in farm communities that all AAA wanted to do was get young drivers seeking farm permits at least 40 hours of driving with an adult.

``Anytime you talk about changes to driver's licenses, they automatically say no,'' he said.

But they did go along with changes in the bill.

The new version of the bill would require drivers under age 16 to provide a signed affidavit from either a parent or a guardian saying the applicant has completed at least 20 hours of actual driving, with 10 of those hours being at night.

The bill also says that a driver with a restricted license or a farm permit who is under 16 and is convicted of two or more traffic violations will have to wait until age 17 to get a full license.

The revised bill also makes it a moving violation for a driver with a restricted license or farm permit to have nonsibling passengers.

Before approving the bill, the committee heard several hours of testimony from those favoring AAA's version and those opposing it.

The Kansas Farm Bureau had been against any supervised driving requirements, but the organization said it could live with 20 hours.

Roadblocks ahead

The governor and legislative leaders have mixed opinions on what will happen to the revised bill.

Gov. Bill Graves said he has the same reservations about AAA's proposal that emerged in the Senate committee.

``The state still has a lot of farm families who count on being able to have their children drive at an early age for school or errands,'' Graves said.

Graves said if the Legislature does deal with the driving issue, it might also want to consider doing something about getting older drivers off the road.

``My dad is one of them. He's 84 years old and probably should either not be behind the wheel or have some testing to verify his ability behind the wheel,'' Graves said. ``I say that not out of some desire to restrict somebody's mobility, but out of a desire to make sure somebody is not injured or hurt, much like the people who are concerned about young drivers.''

Graves predicted the bill probably wouldn't make it to his desk this year.

Fuqua predicted that without the AAA pushing the bill, ``it's probably going to die on the Senate floor.''

He added that it was too late for AAA to push the bill in the House this year.

The House Transportation Committee would have to get the bill approved by next week for it to be considered by the Senate again this year, he said.

And such legislation is difficult to get through the House, he said.

``You have 125 people to talk to over there instead of 40 (in the Senate),'' Fuqua said.

Furthermore, House Speaker Tim Shallenburger, R-Baxter Springs, said he doesn't support the AAA bill.

``I'm not sure you are more skilled at one age than at another,'' Shallenburger said.

``The House has really been hard to convince on that,'' Shallenburger said. ``You have to teach people to drive at some age. Waiting doesn't help. I don't have a problem of requiring a certain skill level. I'm not sure that you're more skilled at 16 than you are at 15 or 14.''

High fatalities

If the Senate does debate the new version of the bill, there will probably be some amendments made to reinstate some of AAA's provisions, said Sen. Sandy Praeger, R-Lawrence.

``I think the AAA bill had a lot of merit,'' Praeger said.

``The statistics are pretty compelling,'' she said. ``We have a high instance of fatality accidents with younger drivers. And I think everybody is concerned about how best we approach that.''

According to AAA, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teen-agers.

Here are some AAA statistics:

  • One out of every seven Kansas drivers between the ages of 15 and 19 was involved in an automobile crash in 1996.
  • Only one out of every 16 drivers over age 19 was involved in a crash during the same period.
  • Despite holding only 8 percent of the driver's licenses in Kansas, teen drivers were involved in 15 percent of all Kansas fatality accidents -- the largest of any age group.

Kentucky began a similar plan in 1995 to what AAA proposed for Kansas. Since then, the vehicle fatality rate has dropped by 88 percent, AAA reported.

Nineteen states already have similar plans and seven more will add them this year, Fuqua said.

``We feel bad for teen-agers in Kansas,'' he said. ``There's a 14 percent chance that teen-agers are going to be in a crash this year. If I was a parent I wouldn't like those odds too much.

``Those numbers aren't going to change unless we start to do something about it. What is in front of the Senate isn't going to have an effect.''

Enforcement complications

Mike Browning, assistant principal at Lawrence High School, said he is not convinced age is relevant in discussions of changing the driving age.

``Just as we have irresponsible drivers who are 16 we also have irresponsible drivers who are 50,'' he said.

He said he would like to see the state put more money into driver's education programs.

At LHS, only juniors and seniors are allowed to use the school parking lot. However, because Free State High School has a large parking lot, all of its 850 students have the option of driving to school.

``We would say that probably two-thirds of the students drive,'' said Ted Berard, assistant principal. ``We had about 550 parking stickers issued.''

Education effort

Fuqua said AAA hasn't decided whether it will try to push the legislation again next year.

But the organization will shift gears and move toward a public education effort in Kansas, he said.

``We're going to really pound the pavement and let people understand how severe the problem is,'' he said.

``If we can just convince parents to spend some more time in the car with their kids, that will do some good,'' he said.

-- Dave Toplikar's phone message number is 832-7151. His e-mail address is toplikar@ljworld.com.

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