Illinois lawmakers push for teen driving restrictions

Friday, May 2, 2003

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- As soon as Cassie Bigham got her drivers license, she began driving carloads of friends around town. Bigham insists she can concentrate on safe driving, even with four other teenagers in the car.

"You should know not to act stupid," said the 17-year-old Northlake resident.

But the statistics say many young drivers don't: New drivers are five times more likely to get into accidents when they have carloads of young passengers.

Now Illinois lawmakers are on the verge of limiting new drivers to having just one underage passenger in their cars for the first six months they have a license.

Backed by the National Transportation Safety Board, the bill has passed the Illinois Senate and is pending in the House.

"There is no doubt in my mind that it will save lives in Illinois the moment it takes effect," said Kevin Quinlan, an NTSB safety expert.

Twenty states have enacted similar passenger restrictions, and safety advocates said they have been successful in curbing accidents.

A study done by the safety board showed a 23 percent decrease in fatal crashes in North Carolina after passenger restrictions were adopted for new drivers. The number of accidents dropped 43 percent when nighttime driving restrictions were added.

The Illinois legislation originally would have barred teens from driving between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. That provision was quickly dropped after lawmakers complained it would prevent kids from driving home after school sports and jobs.

Now the bill simply limits the number of young passengers. The limit does not apply to family members.

Safety advocates are convinced that even the less restrictive bill will save lives.

"It will absolutely help," said Ellen Engleman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "Over 16,000 teens died (in auto accidents) in the last five years. We need to address the safety elements of teen drivers."

Parents seem to like the idea -- sometimes because of lessons learned the hard way.

"When my daughter turned 16, two days later she wrecked my car," said Rep. Karen May, D-Highland Park. "There were six kids in the car, and one of them needed stitches."

"I love that law," said Deborah Dorey of Gurnee, the mother of two young children. "We live near a high school and you can tell who are the ones who have just gotten their license. I think it is an excellent idea."

But some teenagers scoff at the idea that a law will keep them from riding with friends.

One teen compared trying to enforce the rule to trying to stop underage drinking.

"People will do whatever they want," said Heidi Gwinn. "Just because there is a law against teens drinking doesn't mean they don't."

Taryn Montgomery, an 18-year-old from Antioch, used to live in Indiana, where teen drivers couldn't have any underage passengers in the car during the first three months. She knew teens who continued to drive loads of friends around even after getting ticketed for violations.

"Nobody listens and nobody does it unless their parents make them," Montgomery said.

Another teen compared trying to enforce the rule to trying to stop underage drinking.

"People will do whatever they want," said Heidi Gwinn. "Just because there is a law against teens drinking doesn't mean they don't."

Under the legislation, police could not stop carloads of teens and check their ages. The driver would have to commit a traffic violation in order to be stopped, said the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Wheaton.

"During the first six months you are out on your own, you are still learning. You are still getting the feel and control of the car," Hultgren said. "We're not taking something away that they've had. We are just saying we want it to be gradual."

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The bill is SB58

On the Net: http://www.legis.state.il.us

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