North Dakota Lawmakers Support Tougher Restrictions for Teen Drivers

January 5, 2009

North Dakota lawmakers strongly support toughening state laws that govern teenage drivers, and many favor raising the state’s 14-year-old minimum driving age, an Associated Press survey shows.

Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm, state Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, and a group that includes Fargo pediatrician Ron Miller and officials from North Dakota State University’s Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute have been working on legislation to restrict what young people may do behind the wheel.

It is likely to include a ban on late-night driving and on cell phone and text-messaging by teenage drivers, and restrictions on the number and age of passengers a young driver may transport, participants in the talks say.

Hamm and Gruchalla, who is a former North Dakota highway patrolman, say they hope a consensus proposal will have a better chance of winning approval in the North Dakota Legislature, which begins its regular session on Tuesday, Jan. 6. Both men had planned to introduce their own bills.

“We all firmly believe that a graduated driver’s license concept is a good idea for North Dakota,” Hamm said. “It would move us much closer, in terms of regulating youth driving, to where the rest of the country is.”

In a pre-session survey, The Associated Press asked North Dakota lawmakers what they believed North Dakota’s minimum driving age should be.

Another question asked lawmakers whether they backed a prohibition on cell-phone use by 14- and 15-year-old drivers and a daily driving curfew for them starting at 11 p.m. and ending at 5 a.m.

In the North Dakota Senate, 29 of the 38 senators who responded to the AP survey said they favored the cell-phone ban and driving curfew for 14- and 15-year-old drivers. Seven said they disagreed and two were undecided.

Among House members, 53 of the 80 representatives who replied to the survey said they supported the driving curfew and cell-phone restrictions. Twenty did not, and seven listed themselves as undecided.

The Legislature has 47 senators and 94 representatives.

On the question about North Dakota’s minimum driving age, 21 senators said they favored keeping it at 14, while 14 senators favored raising it to 15 or 16. Three were undecided or supported another option, the AP survey showed.

Among the 80 House members who replied, 33 supported the 14-year-old minimum age, while 40 backed raising it to 15 or 16. Seven were undecided or backed another option.

North Dakota law now allows 14-year-olds to drive with an instructional permit when accompanied by an adult who has at least three years’ driving experience.

Once a 14-year-old driver has had a permit for six months and has completed driver’s education training, he or she may drive a parent or guardian’s vehicle without a supervisor. Once the driver turns 16, he or she may drive any vehicle unaccompanied.

Among the restrictions being discussed are bans on late-night driving and cell-phone use by 14- and 15-year-old drivers; requiring 14-year-olds to have an instructional permit for one year instead of six months; restricting the number of passengers a young driver may carry and allowing young drivers to drive only to and from school or work.

In a report published last year, North Dakota’s Department of Transportation said drivers 17 years old and younger accounted for 21 percent of the state’s fatal crashes between 2001 and 2007, and 26 percent of the accidents.

Hamm and Gruchalla said any legislation will include a farm and ranch exemption that will allow 14- and 15-year-olds to drive unaccompanied while doing agricultural work.

Gruchalla said his ideal measure would require a North Dakotan to be at least 16 years old to drive. Political realities dictate otherwise, he said.

“I disagree with the farm exemption. I think it should be 16, period,” Gruchalla said. “However, (the legislation) won’t pass if we don’t have a farm exemption, and it affects a small percentage of the number of drivers in the first place.”

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