January 30, 2012

Maine teens to face stricter driving rules

Expanded training and rules changes are debated as the state tries to make the young safer on the roads.

From staff and news services

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.

Young drivers

Should someone under 18 have to have 70 hours of driving practice instead of the current 35 hours in order to get a license?

Yes

No

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Samantha Rideout, 16, of New Gloucester buckles up as she prepares to drive off with her friends, including Nik Pelletier, 17, of Yarmouth, after they visited the Maine Mall in South Portland on Sunday.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

From left, Simi Russell, 18, Dessirrea Meyer, 16, and Amanda VanBrocklin, 17, all of Portland, talk about the proposed new requirements for young drivers to get their licenses while at the Maine Mall on Sunday.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

SUGGESTED CHANGES

DRIVERS BETWEEN the ages of 16 and 24 make up about 11 percent of Maine's licensed drivers but are involved in 29 percent of the state's motor vehicle deaths and 38 percent of injuries.

PROPOSALS UNDER consideration include:

Increasing from 35 to 70 hours the amount of time a teenager must practice -- supervised -- behind the wheel before getting a license.

Moving from midnight to 10 p.m. the curfew for teenagers with intermediate licenses.

Extending the intermediate license period from six months to a year.

FOR MORE INFORMATION on possible tougher license requirements is available on the Maine Secretary of State's website at www.maine.gov/sos/community.html.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Young drivers

Should someone under 18 have to have 70 hours of driving practice instead of the current 35 hours in order to get a license?

Yes

No

View Results