Coalition Pushes for Graduated Drivers Licensing

JONESBORO --  Handing over the keys to a teenager can be tough for parents.  But, a group of lawmakers, parents and insurance providers would like to make it even tougher.  In fact, they're taking the idea of Graduated Drivers Licensing program to the Arkansas legislature this session.

All it takes is a split second decision that can change lives.

"As I was being loaded into the ambulance, I overheard paramedics say, 'We need to find her foot,'" a teen driver describes a day that changed her life forever.

Shattered lives, twisted metal and broken bodies can result from teens being ill-prepared to face the driving circumstances found in their first year.  According to Arkansas Children's Hospital, the teen crash fatality rate in Arkansas is two times the national average.

"A teen dies in a Arkansas in a crash every six days," explained Gary Stephenson of State Farm Arkansas Governmental and Community Affairs.  "And so that's just way too many and it's preventable.  And while we say and we believe that our children are our most precious resource, I would submit that we need to have traffic safety laws that reflect that."

To this end, Stephenson and other members of the Arkansas Citizens for Graduated Drivers License Coalition, want the Arkansas legislature to place restrictions on 16-year-old drivers.  The reason: Arkansas ranks 6th in the nation when it comes to teen crash fatalites over the last ten years.

"That first six months is the most dangerous period in their lives and their chances of having an accident during the first six months are in the range of 20 times greater during the first 6 months," said Stephenson. "And it makes sense because that's when they have the least amount of experience and they're on their own."

It's at this time studies show peer pressure is great.  Young drivers aren't as familiar with different road conditions either.  Death rates for 16 and 17-year-old drivers increase with each passenger that's in the car. Night-time fatality rates for 16-year-olds are two times as high as during the daytime. That's led many states to impose restrictions on their youngest drivers.

Only Kansas, Arkansas and North Dakota had no night-time, passenger or cell phone restrictions on teen drivers. That's three states in 50.

Opponents of the measure claim limiting times when teens can travel and how many passengers they can have in the car is too restrictive and deprives them of freedom to make decisions on their own.

"It's not about limiting civil liberties," said Stephenson.  "It's about saving lives so that they can continue to have civil liberties."

Graduated Drivers Licensing programs have been found to reduce fatal and injury crashes among 16-year-olds by 35 percent.  And that Stephenson says is the difference between life and death.

"You pray a lot and you need to think a lot about doing the logical thing to protect our kids," said Stephenson. "We can do better."

Senator Jim Jeffress is expected to introduce the Graduated Drivers Licensing bill this session.

It went down to defeat in the House last time, 63 to 27.