Corey and Joleen DeWitt of Wells, who lost their oldest daughter in a car crash five years ago, believe that Maine should be updating the rules governing young drivers and the process they must go through to get a driver’s license.
But the couple also believe that parents and the state need to do a better job of impressing on young drivers the responsibility that comes with having a driver’s license and a car.
Courtney DeWitt, 15, was a passenger in a car operated by a 16-year-old who was speeding just before the crash in December 2006. The driver had had her license for 18 days, the DeWitts said.
“Our daughter died because of speed and speed alone,” Joleen DeWitt said. “Driving is not a given. It’s a privilege.”
The DeWitts were commenting on new rules being developed by Secretary of State Charles Summers.
Summers supports increasing the current required 35 hours of practice driving to 70 hours, a 10 p.m. curfew for drivers with intermediate licenses rather than midnight, and extending the intermediate license period from six months to a year.
Summers said drivers ages 16 to 24 are involved in an inordinate number of serious crashes each year, including eight crashes involving 12 fatalities since Christmas. Summers said his goal is to provide better training for young drivers and make automobile travel safer for everyone.
“I am not trying to make it more difficult for young drivers to get their license,” Summers said. “It’s to make them better prepared for getting behind the wheel.”
Summers said the last time the state’s driver education curriculum was upgraded was in 1996, long before the age of text messaging.
For the past month, a technical review panel consisting of a state trooper, driver education officials, officials from the state Department of Education, a student, an insurance industry representative and a psychologist have been listening to public comments and suggestions regarding rule changes for young drivers.
The public meetings have been held across the state, including in Portland and Kennebunk.
The panel, which meets again on Feb. 8, is expected to come up with recommendations for changes by the end of the winter, some of which may require approval from the Legislature.
In addition to more training time behind the wheel, proposals under consideration include requiring students to take an online course about traffic signage and other driving basics, and increasing the minimum age of licensed drivers who must accompany permit drivers from 20 to 25 years.
Though some parents have suggested raising the minimum age that a person can have a driver’s license — it is currently 16 years old for an intermediate license – Summers doesn’t believe that would gain public support. He said parents want their children to be able to drive to an after-school athletic practice or to a job.
Joleen DeWitt said she liked some of the suggestions at a public hearing she attended earlier this month in Kennebunk.
One recommendation was to extend the intermediate license period from six months to a year and to have student drivers practice on computerized driving simulators.
Currently, drivers 18 and older are not required to take driver’s education to get a license, but those younger than 18 face several requirements.
Teens may obtain a driver’s permit at 15 if they take 40 hours of driver’s education, which includes 10 hours behind the wheel, and pass a test.
At 16, they may obtain an intermediate license that allows them to drive alone with family members or licensed drivers 20 and older — except between midnight and 5 a.m. or when using a cellphone.
Ann Furber, who has been a driving instructor at Maine School Administrative District 60 for eight years, teaches high school-age students from North Berwick, Berwick and Lebanon how to drive.
“I love the idea that the state is looking into changes,” Furber said. “But I also feel we need to do more with the public and with the parents.”
Furber said one of the biggest hurdles she faces is teaching her students to ignore the illegal maneuvers – running stop signs and red lights are common – that they see adults committing out on the roads of York County.
“You can teach kids how to drive, but when they get out into the public they see a lot of bad examples being set,” Furber said.
Teens appear to be divided when it comes to making changes to license requirements.
Nik Pelletier, 17, a Yarmouth High School student, said he has no problem telling friends to stop text messaging while driving and makes a point of not calling or texting friends he knows are behind the wheel.
Still, Pelletier, who does not have his license and is not in any rush to start, is against any new rules that would make the process of getting a license to drive in Maine harder.
“It’s not a training thing but a common-sense thing,” said Pelletier, whose friend, Samantha Rideout, 16, drove him and two friends to the Maine Mall on Sunday.
Ellie Wiewel, 16, of Kennebunkport, who has had her license since August, said she agrees that everyone should be required to take driver’s education.
“Training will do it,” she said.
Zachary Messina, 15, of Yarmouth, a passenger in Rideout’s car, said his group of friends has gotten the message about the dangers of drinking or texting and driving.
“In Yarmouth we do lots of walking,” Messina said.
Dessirrea Meyer, 16, of Portland, who has a driving permit, said she sees no need for major changes.
“Thirty-five hours is a lot of hours,” Meyer said.
Staff writers Dennis Hoey and Beth Quimby and The Associated Press contributed to this report.