On the street
I grew up in a rural community and learned to drive when I was about 10 years old in one of our pastures.
Baring a tin grin, Nick Haley, 15, adjusted the mirror and grabbed the wheel with both hands. He slowly pressed down on the gas pedal, but the car wasn't moving.
Oops, he forgot to shift the car into drive.
Welcome to another summer of driver's education classes at Free State High School.
As these teenagers - about 250 of them - prepare to hit the road, there's debate nationally and locally about exactly when and how they should learn to drive.
While Nick said he is old enough to start driving, his mother, Joanie Haley, isn't so sure.
"It's too young to be driving at 14 and 15," she said. "When I grew up in California, you couldn't get a license until you were 16."
She's not alone. According to a Kansas Teen Driver Research and Education Project survey, virtually all Kansas parents believe teens should be at least 16 to drive without restrictions and 50 percent supported an age limit of 17 or 18.
Organizations such as Kansas Action for Children and AAA Kansas want to raise the age limits, too. That's because motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers. According to the Kansas Department of Transportation, teen drivers account for only 6 percent of Kansas' registered drivers but 20 percent of crashes.
Last year in Douglas County, 353 accidents involved teen drivers ages 14-17. Of those, 91 resulted in injuries and 262 caused property damage. Teen drivers cost the state $467 million annually in medical expenses, lost work, property damage and other related costs.
To put a dent in such numbers, Kansas Action for Children, AAA Kansas and KDOT have been lobbying state legislators to adopt a graduated driver's license policy that would increase age limits and implement restrictions on nighttime driving, teenage passengers and use of wireless devices during the learning phase.
Kansas is one of only four states that has not adopted such a policy - a policy that has reduced teen crashes by up to 20 percent in other states, according to AAA Kansas.
"Some people will say that we do have a graduated licensing system because we have a learner's permit, restricted and then the full license, but when you look at the definition of a true graduated driving license system, we are really lagging behind other states," said Suzanne Wikle, director of health policy for Kansas Action for Children. "Our car driver's licensing system is not up to date with the best practices that are out there."
In 2007 and 2008, the Senate passed a bill that would have implemented such a system, but it failed to garner support in the House.
Rep. Gary Hayzlett, R-Lakin, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he conducted a survey of his southwest Kansas district and found that 70 percent of the constituents didn't want to change the laws. Many said they were just getting used to the law - imposed about 10 years ago - that required teens to have 50 hours of supervised driving before obtaining an unrestricted license. At least 10 of those hours have to be at night.
"The one that we are operating under was supposed to be the cure-all - supervised training, nighttime training and this and that. Now, that's not enough," he said.
But Ron Gaches, a lobbyist for AAA Kansas, said the state didn't know then what it knows today.
"When we passed the current teen driving law, we didn't have this overwhelming evidence that shows us that late-night driving and driving with lots of passengers causes so many more accidents, but now it is just absolutely irrefutable," he said.
Proponent for change
Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, doesn't need statistics to convince him. He has seen it firsthand as a longtime car dealer and father of three.
"Every one of my children had an accident when they were young," he said.
Donovan said his eldest son is lucky to be alive after rear-ending a vehicle at about 90 mph on the day that he got his car.
"It was a horrible accident, and we were just lucky by the grace of God that nobody was killed, but they could have been," he said.
There were two other boys in the car with him. Donovan said he took his son's car away and didn't return it until he was 17. His son didn't argue a bit.
"Every year of additional training and driving and experience makes that driver a safer driver, and that's what a graduated driver's license tries to do," he said. "It saves lives. It's too bad that we have to think about that before we can implement it."
While some lawmakers aren't convinced laws need to be changed, a new survey released Tuesday by AAA Kansas found that 65 percent of Kansas teens supported a graduated license system.
Rachel Saladin and Tracy Stowe, both 16, can be counted among them. The Lawrence teens support an increase in the age limit and imposing restrictions on wireless devices, nighttime driving and passengers, especially because they know classmates and friends who have been in car accidents. Rachel knew one teen who had been in three accidents during the past couple of months.
Kole Buck, 15, doesn't see a need to change the law, however, and said it depends on each individual.
"It's how kids choose to use the privilege," he said.
KyAnne Hall, 14, added that carpooling not only could help pay for gas but also limit the number of teen drivers on the road. She said some teens work after 9 p.m. - a time restriction that AAA Kansas would like to see implemented - and thought driving would be safer than walking late at night.
Her mother, Deb Hall, thought the restrictions were a good idea, but wasn't sure if she would support raising the age limit.
"I have mixed emotions. I think at a little bit older they might be more responsible and a little better equipped, but I don't think they should raise it too much because they have to learn before they get out of high school and go to college," she said. "It's kind of a catch-22."
Kole's mother, Lisa Rothwell, also questioned raising the age limit.
"They are old enough to start working. They are old enough to go to high school, but they are not old enough to drive," she said. "It's kind of one of those double jeopardy things. We'll take you for work, but you can't drive yourself."
The AAA Kansas survey found that while most parents impose the kinds of restrictions that are at the heart of the graduated license approach, many fall short of protecting their children. They don't communicate the restrictions to their children, and they remove the restrictions too soon.
"If you have your own teenagers, take control, regardless of the law," said Jim Hanni, executive vice president of AAA Kansas. "It's practice, practice, practice. Keep drivers from driving at night when they first start out, and limit passengers and wireless devices.
"It simply saves lives."