State may toughen teen driving laws - Tucson Local Media: Import

State may toughen teen driving laws

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Posted: Tuesday, April 6, 2004 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:49 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Pat Nugent began the first day of his driver's education class this year by pointing to a chair.

The student who sat there only months ago, he told his Canyon del Oro High School students in August, was gone. A one-vehicle accident killed her two days earlier, along with two other Northwest teen-agers. Alcohol was involved.

This was a powerful illustration of the importance of safe driving - a message that driver's education teachers at Amphitheater Public Schools and Marana Unified School District said they try to engrain in their students each day.

"I had a parent who thanked me for emphasizing seatbelts because her kid was in a rollover and he was wearing a seatbelt, and was OK," said Ron Jeffries, a driver's education teacher at Marana High School.

Driver's education was not required in Arizona until 2000. Before then, teen-agers could receive licenses simply by coming of age and passing written tests and road tests.

Now, students must either complete a program approved by the Arizona Department of Transportation or have a supervising adult sign a statement saying they had 25 hours of driving practice including five nighttime hours.

"This was a real move forward, when you go from nothing before," said Cydney DeModica, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation's motor vehicle division.

While Arizona has enacted this and other legislation to promote safe driving habits among teen agers, the state has a way to go before it meets guidelines set by the National Transportation Safety Board - a federal agency charged by Congress with making road safety recommendations.

In 1993, the board asked all 50 states to enact laws that provide teen-age drivers with special licenses and restrict nighttime driving.

This followed research that showed teen-agers are most likely to be in accidents while driving at night.

In 1998, Arizona legislators introduced a bill that would satisfy the recommendation, but it failed, Demodica said. In 1999, a version of the bill passed - with no nighttime restrictions.

Resistance to a nighttime restriction came from rural communities where young drivers needed to run errands at night and faced little traffic, DeModica said. Since most cities had curfews, nighttime driving was already restricted for most urban teens.

"I think the lawmakers felt we needed to get started, so we needed to get some portion of the graduated license in place and build on it," DeModica said.

By September of 2002, 35 states had some form of nighttime restrictions, according to the safety board.

That year, the safety board recommended that states enact laws to restrict the number of passengers teen-agers can carry.

According to a 2000 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, 16- and 17-year-old drivers with no passengers were half as likely to have a car accident as drivers with two passengers, and one third as likely as drivers with three or more passengers.

A bill being introduced in this state legislative session would add passenger restrictions to the Arizona graduated license.

As of now, Arizona's graduated license for teens is like an adult license, except it exacts harsher penalties for traffic violations.

After one conviction of a driving infraction, young drivers must go to traffic school. After two, their license is suspended for three months. After three, their license is suspended for six months.

As for driver's education, school districts have authority to decide whether it will be a required course.

Marana requires that its high school students take the class, and Amphi does not. Marana's program is nine weeks long, and Amphi's is 14 weeks long. In both districts, health studies fill out the remainder of the course time. Both districts offer behind-the-wheel experience.

To promote safe driving through driver's education, Nugent said he introduces a "fear factor" in his class at Canyon del Oro.

He invites a paramedic to describe for students the devastating real-life scenes - children going through windshields and parents crying on roadsides. He invites an attorney to describe the costs and jail time that can accompany a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Near the end of the course, the driver's education students take roadside sobriety tests while wearing goggles that simulate drunkenness. Then, still wearing the goggles, the students drive golf carts between, and often on, orange cones that represent other cars, curbs and pedestrians.

"We have a lot of beaten up cones," Nugent said.

Jeffries said variety is key to impressing safety on his teen-age driver's education students in Marana. He uses articles from the Internet, guest speakers, videos, PowerPoint presentations and slide shows.

Perhaps the most useful tool he uses, he said, is newspaper articles.

When three area high school students died in the car accident in August, Jeffries clipped related newspaper articles and used them for class discussion.

"They reflect on it, and it personalizes it," he said. "They're thinking about what they would have done."

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