By KEITH LAING, THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Nov. 21, 2008…..So you are 16-years-old and you’ve just been handed a driver’s license.
What’s the first thing you do? Offer your uncool, unlicensed friends rides, of course!
Not so fast though. A bill filed in the state House of Representatives this week could put the brakes on teenagers shuttling their friends around for a few years.
The measure (HB 7), introduced by Rep. Kelly Skidmore, a Boca Raton Democrat, would prohibit new teenage drivers from having other teens as passengers for the first six months they are on the road. After that, teens would be allowed to have up to three non-adult passengers in the car with them.
Skidmore said the bill would help young drivers familiarize themselves with being behind the wheel alone.
“Our hope is that it will give our young drivers an opportunity to focus on driving defensively without distraction so they can pay attention to all the things (happening) on the the road that they’ll have to deal with,” she said.
Skidmore said it is hard for any new driver to adjust to the speed and quick decisions necessary for driving on busy roads. Having friends along for the ride can often make that overwhelming adjustment even worse, she said.
“All those things can easily become a tragedy if you’re not focused,” she said.
The Department of Highway Safety reported nearly 25,000 accidents involving drivers under 18 years old in 2007, with 267 of them involving fatalities. The highway safety department compiles traffic accident statistics at the end of every year.
Skidmore said she was not blaming teenage drivers for their recklessness. Instead, she said, she was giving them a framework to grow out of it.
“When you turn 16, or however old you are when you first get your license, you have an overwhelming feeling of freedom, excitement and opportunity,” she said. “We forget to impose upon our children the responsibility and caution that goes along with it.”
Skidmore said she expects opposition to the bill to come from lawmakers who believe decisions about teenage driving are best left to parents. However, Skidmore said many parents have asked for a measure like the one she is proposing.
“This is a rule many parents impose on their children, but they discover that many of their children’s friends don’t have the same imposition on them,” she said. “They’d like to see something across the board.”
Skidmore compared the measure to laws already on the books setting age limits for smoking and consuming alcohol.
“These are things we teach our children, but they are so important to society, we also have laws about them,” she said.
Already, Skidmore’s bill has fans in the American Automobile Association. Kevin Bakewell, senior vice-president of AAA’s Auto Club South, said the motorists’ club supports passenger restrictions for teenage drivers. In fact, Bakewell said Skidmore’s proposal was probably a little too lenient.
“Three (passengers) is probably a bit much,” Bakewell said. “One or two is the most it really should be, unless you’re talking about siblings.”
Any teenage passenger restriction would have to exclude family, Bakewell said, because many families rely on older licensed teens to ease the transportation burden and cart younger brothers, sisters and cousins around.
Still, Bakewell said gradually allowing teens to have passengers would be one of the easiest ways to reduce the danger of them getting too distracted behind the wheel.
“That’s one of the biggest missing components…that will do the most good and save the most lives,” Bakewell said.