Topeka Experienced drivers wanted.
Traffic safety experts say Kansas is condemning a number of young people to death each year by declaring on their 16th birthday that they can drive anytime, anywhere.
"The way we have done it," said Robert Foss, a national expert on teenage drivers, "we walk them up to the edge of the pool, shove them in and hope they survive.
"Most do, but far too many don't," Foss said.
Foss is director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.
He recently visited the state urging Kansans to consider changing the law on driver's licenses in a way that would restrict 16-year-olds on when they could drive and who could be with them.
Currently in Kansas, full licensure is available to 16-year-olds.
But phasing in the privilege of driving would give new drivers valuable experience before they could "graduate" to having unlimited access to the road, Foss said.
He has helped lead what is called the graduated driver's license movement across the country that has resulted in new restrictions in 45 states. Thirty-two states prohibit new drivers from driving at night and restrict the number of passengers they can have in their vehicle or require that a licensed adult be with them for a certain time period.
"That eases the transition between driving with mom or dad and being completely in charge of the car yourself," Foss said.
The remaining states have nighttime restrictions only.
Kansas is one of five states with neither of those limits for newly licensed drivers.
"Kansas has one of the weaker systems in the country," said James Hanni, executive vice president of the Kansas Region of AAA.
No. 1 killer
For teenagers in the United States, the No. 1 killer is motor vehicle crashes.
In Kansas, teen drivers from 15 to 18 years old represented 6.7 percent of all Kansas registered drivers but accounted for 20.1 percent of all crashes.
For the five-year period ending in 2004, 14- to 17-year-old drivers in Kansas were involved in 60,013 crashes, 26,050 injuries and 273 fatalities.
Foss and Hanni said numerous studies have shown that young teens just aren't developed enough mentally to make the kinds of judgments needed to drive safely. They need more experience driving under restricted and supervised conditions, they said.
But Katrina Jongman-Sereno, a senior at Free State High School, said limiting teen drivers won't necessarily solve the problem.
"Inexperienced drivers, younger or older, may be more at risk, but ultimately they have to drive to become experienced," she said. "Instead of restricting when or whom they can drive with, beginning drivers should receive better training."
Jongman-Sereno has been driving since she was 14 1/2. She received her restricted license after logging 50 hours driving with her parents and her full license in October when she turned 16.
"An experienced adult driving while on a cell phone is probably more dangerous than the average teen driver," she said. "I'm against any changes to the current driving restrictions for teenagers."
Restricting new drivers has won the support of numerous state agencies, law enforcement officials and health groups.
But the issue hasn't budged in Kansas because of worries from rural groups.
In wide-open rural areas, driving to get somewhere is a must, and the sooner the better for young people who sometimes live many miles from school or work.
"We rely on labor that includes high school kids in the summer," said Terry Holdren, local policy director for the Kansas Farm Bureau.
Holdren's group opposed a graduated license bill during the last legislative session. The proposal was called "Cody's Law" after Cody Gumm, a 16-year-old Kansas City, Kan., youth who was killed in a traffic accident in 2003. He was the passenger in a car of another teenager who was later convicted of vehicular homicide for his reckless driving that led to the accident.
Holdren said the bill's changes were too extreme, but the Farm Bureau probably could support lesser restrictions.
The measure last session would have increased full licensure from 16 to 18, the ages for an instructional permit from 14 to 15 and a restricted permit from 15 to 16. It also tightened an exception for 14-year-olds working on farms.
Holdren said his group likely would support restrictions on nighttime driving and the number of passengers allowed in a new driver's vehicle.
Statistics show the accident rate for new drivers increases dramatically when there is more than one other teen passenger in the vehicle.
A panel appointed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is considering several proposals aimed at making Kansas roads safer. It is expected to make recommendations before the 2007 legislative session that starts in January.
Cynthia Connor, the mother of 16-year-old Cody Gumm, has urged lawmakers to approve graduated driver's licenses.
"Driving restrictions may not be convenient for parents, but they are much less of a burden than planning a funeral," she said.