Stricter training and curfews -- California's tough stand on teen driving

Teen-agers in this auto-dependent state are going to find it harder to get - and harder to keep - a driver's license. A bipartisan movement to make the roads safer here has targeted new generations of California drivers.

The movement gained passage this year of a program of provisional licensing for teens, which includes more intense training and stricter rules. If a proposal to set a midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew is also approved by the Legislature, California could end up with one of the toughest licensing laws in the country. On Tuesday, the lawmakers turned down an additional proposal to make use of seat belts mandatory for teen drivers.

''The two big priorities in highway safety are drunk driving - raising the drinking age to 21 - and restraint use,'' explains Paul Snodgrass, spokesman for the Western region of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

He says the push to toughen teen driving standards has its roots in these two areas. (He adds that 60 percent of all traffic fatalities are related to drunk driving.)

At present, California ''is about average'' compared to other states in efforts to regulate teen driving, says Mr. Snodgrass. Several states have already instituted teen curfews. Snodgrass points out that New York has just implemented regulations requiring all learner's-permit holders - about 900,000 people - to wear seat belts.

The new California proposals are aimed at instilling good habits in young drivers - like not drinking and driving, or wearing seat belts - in the hope that they will stay with the young drivers as permanent behavior.

California's Provisional Licensing Program, which begins in October, will bring 16- and 17-year-old drivers under close scrutiny by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Teen drivers need to be monitored, explains DMV spokesman George Farnham, because they make up only 2 percent of all California drivers but are involved in a disproportionate 6 percent of all accidents that involve fatalities or injuries.

Under provisional licensing, outlines Mr. Farnham, teens are required to complete driver education and training in school, as at present. But the new program requires an additional 30 to 40 hours of driving practice in the company of an adult age 25 or older. A parent or guardian must certify, under penalty of perjury, that the driving practice has been completed.

To get a license, which is issued for four years and is provisional until the age of 18, a teen must take a longer written test than is now required, he continues. The new test, geared toward the speeding, drinking, and right-of-way problems identified as teen driving issues, will have 10 more questions than the 36-question adult version.

Under the program, the DMV's monitoring of young drivers will be bolstered by these new rules:

* Teen licenses will be suspended after one failure to pay a fine or to appear in court for a traffic violation.

* A first traffic violation or accident will bring a warning letter; the second accident or violation within 12 months will cause solo-driving privileges to be suspended for one month, during which the teen must drive only with an adult over 25; a third violation can result in a six-month suspension from driving.

The proposed curfew requirement is expected to reduce accidents and injuries. The curfew, which does not apply to teens driving for emergency medical reasons or to go to and from work, is ''expected to considerably reduce the accident rate, because midnight to 5 a.m. is the time they'd be out drinking and sneaking the family car out,'' says Farnham.

Part of the motivation behind these proposals is the lower insurance rates anticipated by the insurance industry, says Sal Bianco, a consultant to the State Assembly's Committee on Finance and Insurance.

While there has been considerable opposition to insurance industry lobbying for mandatory seat-belt laws and higher drinking ages, Mr. Bianco and others say they have heard of no opposition to the curfew proposal.

Another piece of legislation being considered here could, if passed, create tougher sanctions for teens convicted of a first drunk-driving offense than for adults guilty of the same crime. Under the proposed bill, drivers ages 16 or 17 would have their licenses revoked for a year or until they turn 18, whichever is longer, upon conviction. Current law doesn't require the revocation of an adult's license for a first offense.

A program initiated two years ago by the state's department of education meshes well with new law's goal of better training for young drivers.

''We're moving towards statewide parental involvement in driver training,'' says Bob Terry, traffic-safety education consultant with the California Department of Education.

The department sponsors a one- to two-hour program designed to show parents how to teach their children driving techniques. It also instructs parents on the importance of safety, and even encourages them to extract promises from their children that they will use seat belts.

Some districts require parent orientation before a student begins driver education courses. But even without that requirement, notes Mr. Terry, the 40 percent of California's schools that have started the program report that 90 to 95 percent of parents participate.

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