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Will Iowa put brakes on teens?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tragedies, local and statewide, renew discussions on driving laws

A recent spate of deadly traffic accidents involving teenagers has some reconsidering the restrictions Iowa places on teen drivers.

Accidents in recent days have killed teens in several Iowa cities including LeMars, renewing calls from some who have lobbied for more than two years to modify Iowa's teen driving laws.

It has been a tragic year on area roads as well:

* In April, Anthony Clark, 16, Cody Claussen, 17, and his brother, Samuel Collier, 15, students at Schaller-Crestland, died when the car they were traveling in spun out of control on a slushy Highway 20 bridge and crashed into a semitrailer. They were on their way for an early-morning workout before school. One of the passengers had reportedly lost his license for passing a stopped school bus.

* On the night after last Christmas, four teens were injured when the car they were riding in rolled on Highway 7 just east of Newell. The 18-year old driver had to be freed with the Jaws of Life, and three students who were passengers, age 16 to 17, were also hospitalized.

* Michael Britton, a 17-year-old Sioux Central teen, died July 14 in a one-car accident on Highway 10. He had been on the way to meet teammates to travel to an Iowa Games basketball tournament in Ames that day when his truck went out of control, entered a ditch and struck several trees.

Advocates for more restrictions tout state and national research that suggests changes to Iowa's laws could reduce the number of accidents.

The Legislature, though, has been reluctant to change the laws. Many say they face pressure from another group - rural parents.

Still some say recent events will lead them to reconsider.

"I would like to take a serious look" at changes, said state Rep. Jim Lykam, a Democrat who is chairman of the House of Representatives' public safety committee.

That said, Lykam notes that in the past when changes were proposed "rural Iowa just went ballistic."

More grim evidence of late may force the legislature's hand.

Among those who has lobbied for changes is Tony Bisignano, a former state senator from Des Moines, who said he believes legislators have exaggerated for political reasons the backlash they received.

Bisignano's own teenage son, Nick, died in 2004 in a crash fueled by alcohol and speeding.

"If you truly polled people and laid out the statistics and proposals, I can't believe the vast majority of people wouldn't support changes," Bisignano said.

Car crashes have been a leading killer of teens nationally and in Iowa. Since 2001, there has been an average of 65 motor vehicle fatalities per year for 14- to 20-year-old drivers. Last year there were 78 fatalities.

Teen crashes did begin a steady drop in 1999, when Iowa passed its graduated licensing law.

The law, like others in at least 46 states, gradually increases young drivers' privileges as they get more training and experience. Currently, Iowa's graduated licensing law gives teens a driving curfew of 12:30 a.m. for minors, mandates 30 hours of hands-on training, and requires face-to-face meetings between teen drivers, parents and state traffic safety workers following accidents and moving violations.

That law is now considered relatively lax, however.

Several state studies show that strict nighttime driving curfews, passenger restrictions and greater experience before intermediate licensing make the biggest difference, said Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which has been researching teen drivers for years.

Former public safety commissioner Kevin Techau was among those who championed increased restrictions similar to those adopted in neighboring states.

Among other things, Techau's plan would:

- Increase to 50 hours behind-the-wheel training for student drivers

- Limit to one the number of non-family passengers in their cars

- Begin a driving curfew at 11 p.m.

- Mandate seat belt usage for minor passengers in a teen's car

- Ban cell phone use while driving for those under 18.

Supporters of the restrictions agree that the changes offer no guarantees. Bisignano, for one, said it's unlikely changes would have resulted in a different fate for his son, who chose to drink and drive.

However, Bisignano said the new restrictions are commonsense.

"My question is what's it worth?" he said. "What's the inconvenience worth to you for your child to have, say, six more months of driving experience than to lose them for the rest of your life?"

In Storm Lake, teen drivers have not proven to be a menace.

In 2006, traffic accidents continue to decrease, with the second lowest total in a decade recorded for last year. Only 23 accident-related injuries were reported in 2006. Education programs contributed to the reduction, as well as increases in seatbealt use and child restraints, along with more drivers paying attention to speed limits, according to Public Safety Director Mark Prosser.

Traffic violation charges for teens totaled 529 in 2006, compared to 2,319 for adults. There were only 18 teenage speed violations for the entire year, while adult drivers accounted for 150 such charges.

In teen, as in adults, male drivers caused over twice the traffic arrests as female drivers. The teen charges were almost evenly split between caucasian and Hispanic youth.

Oddly, the number of traffic injuries in Storm Lake, for all driver ages, did not peak during the winter months with impaired driving conditions. In 2006, July and August saw the most people hurt on the city's streets.

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