To the point week of 2/15/07

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AN INTERESTING BILL made its way through the Indiana Senate’s Homeland Security, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs Committee on Tuesday; and as our state struggles with all sorts of issues, from the budget to education, this one could be felt the soonest here – especially among young people.

Senate Bill 487, if passed and made law, would move back the age at which a teenager can apply for a learning permit and a driver’s license.

At this time, a 15-year old can apply for a learner’s permit; and 30 days after their 16th birthday – if they have had the learner’s permit for at least 60 days – they can take the tests to get their driver’s license.

We all remember that day, don’t we? We couldn’t tell you the date of American independence in history class, but we could tell you how many days it was until we got our driver’s license.

You turn 16, and you’ve got 30 more days to wait.

But if this bill becomes law, a teen would have to hold a learner’s permit for 180 days; and they wouldn’t be able to try and get their driver’s license until six months after their 16th birthday.

All of this would be implemented gradually, with the full law being in affect on January 1st, 2010.

That means that teens would wait an additional five months to get to drive alone.

But that’s not all Senate Bill 487 says.

It also places other restrictions on new drivers. Currently, a person in Indiana with a driver’s license is “probationary” until they are 18 years old. Under the proposed bill:

– Anyone holding a probationary license (under 18) would not be allowed to use a cell phone or any other hand held device. That means things like iPods and MP3 players and walkie-talkies, anything you could hold in your hand while driving down the road.

The bill doesn’t address food, however. It’s probably just as dangerous to talk on your cell phone or eat a Big Mac while driving your car, and it doesn’t do your health any good, either.

– Here’s a biggie: drivers with probationary licenses would not be allowed to drive between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., Sunday through Thursday; and midnight to 5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Parents, there won’t be any need to set a curfew for your teenager anymore, the state has done that for you.

The bill does make an exception for teens who are driving to or from work, a school event; or a church event. They are also allowed to be out past the curfew if they have an adult who is at least 25 years old in the car with them.

– Similar to the law now, a new driver would not be able to have any passengers in the car with them other than adults and siblings for the first 90 days that they have their license.

Although that seems the same, remember that a new driver would be five months older at the time they get their license.

– One interesting provision in the bill is that any teen wanting a driver’s license would have to have at least 50 hours of driving practice, and at least 10 hours of that has to be at night, before they can get their license.

The bill passed by a slim 5-4 vote on Tuesday, and our state senator Jim Lewis was one of the committee members who voted for the bill. Remember: it only becomes law if the entire Senate passes it and the House follows suit.

Now before teenagers start picketing and protesting, the bill does come at a time when more and more schools are getting out of the driver’s education business. Here at Switzerland County, driver’s education is contracted through a private company, so it’s no longer a school class, but the sign up for the program is still done through the high school, and high school classrooms are used.

Even with privatization of driver’s education, what the bill really needs to target is the amount of time that a student driver is behind the wheel before they “pass” driver’s education.

Currently a student must drive for six hours, but that is woefully inadequate when you consider that the child is spending time with a trained instructor. What the law needs to mandate is that a student taking an approved driver’s education course must drive more time before completing the course.

Overall, the bill seems nearly impossible to enforce if it ever did become law. Are we really willing to have our law enforcement officers patrolling for 17 year old drivers after 10 p.m. on a Thursday night?

Isn’t there something more important for them to do?

One of the senators voting against the measure, Senator Mike Delph of Carmel, told The Indianapolis Star that the bill was: “…another example of government trying to overstep its boundaries and take up the role of parents.”

As the father of three daughters, I have been particularly interested in the level of driving training that a teenager gets here in Switzerland County before being turned out on the streets with a car and a license.

I remember the test administrator at the license branch telling my oldest daughter that he took his job very seriously, because when he signed her license, that meant that she could drive to California if she wanted to.

I appreciated that, because it is a big responsibility.

As the editor of this newspaper, I also see numerous traffic accident reports because kids had problems getting out of the high school parking lot; someone tried to turn into a gas station without using their signal and got rear ended; or someone slid off of the roadway at night because they were going too fast for the conditions.

Accidents can happen to anyone, but it seems that an abnormal proportion of accidents here happen to teens who haven’t had their licenses very long.

Is legislation the answer? I don’t believe so, because it would be nearly impossible to enforce. What needs to happen is for adults to have meaningful talks with their kids about how dangerous it is to eat, call, text message, change the CD, or anything else that takes your eyes off of the road while your driving.

And then, as adults, we need to practice what we preach.