Topeka Senators gave tentative approval Wednesday to a bill raising the age for obtaining unrestricted Kansas driver’s licenses to 17 from the current 16.
Adopted on a voice vote after a lengthy debate, the measure also places limits on teen drivers while they are gaining experience. The bill has already cleared the House, and final approval on a second Senate vote — expected today — would send it to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
Sen. Les Donovan, a longtime advocate for changing the law, said this was the first time the House had approved a bill restricting driver’s licenses. Senators have approved measures on two previous occasions, only to see them falter in the House Transportation Committee.
“I know this is not an easy issue for anybody. We want to see young kids live and grow up to be adults and do what God intended for them to do,” said Donovan, a Wichita Republican.
If the measure becomes law, Kansas would join 48 states with graduated driver’s license laws, leaving only North Dakota without such provisions.
Public health and children’s advocates have long pushed for changes in how Kansas licenses young drivers, arguing that young and inexperienced motorists have too many accidents. Donovan said statistics presented to legislators indicated that states that passed restrictions saw teenage accidents and fatalities decline by an average of 20 percent to 50 percent.
But the idea has faced resistance from rural legislators worried about the effects on farm families during harvest.
The bill would keep the state’s current practice of allowing teens to get a farm permit or learner’s permit at 14. A learner’s permit allows someone to drive if they are accompanied by an adult.
The bill would require people to have such permits for a year — instead of the current six months — to obtain restricted licenses. The state would keep its current policy of allowing a 15-year-old with an unrestricted license to drive unsupervised to and from school and work.
A 16-year-old’s restricted license also would allow unsupervised driving anywhere from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., provided the young motorists already had 50 hours of adult-supervised driving. After six months, the curfew on unsupervised driving could be dropped.
Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to include religious activities, such as youth groups or church, as an exempted driving excuse. He and others argued such activities were legitimate reasons for teens to be on the road after school or in the evenings.
“These aren’t the kinds of kids we have to worry about killing themselves,” said Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican.
Opponents argued that an amended bill could face trouble should it have to go back to the House for consideration.
“I think it’s critical that we pass this without any chance of the House changing their mind,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Dwayne Umbarger, a Thayer Republican.