Up and down this small city's Main Street, teenagers like Jane Allen slide behind the wheel on Saturday nights in search of that timeless grail of adolescent youth - the pure, innocent excitement of cruising the main drag far beyond the watchful eye of mom and dad.
"Driving around is a fun way to meet people," says 16-year-old Jane, an affable, non-rebellious girl whose ambitions include using her good grades to go to college. "Cruising with your friends is sure better than [the alternative of] doing drugs or drinking."
But joy riding with a pack of buddies - especially late at night - is a rite of passage that may be going the way of drive-in movies and eight-track tapes.
Many states today, including Montana, are putting brakes on young, novice drivers by limiting when and with whom they can hit the road.
Growing safety concerns are propelling the trend of "graduated licensing" for teens - even in wide-open Western states where government regulation is frowned upon.
In response to data showing that drivers 16 and younger are a risk - more than any other age group - to themselves, their passengers, and other motorists, a majority of US states no longer grant full driving privileges the day a teenager hits that milestone birthday.
"As a society, we spend more time teaching young people how to swim than how to handle a car," says Robert Weltzer of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Denver office. "We must do better."
To that end, NHTSA is spearheading a federal program that encourages states to adopt tough new guidelines for licensing young drivers. During the five-year effort, at least three dozen states have enacted tighter restrictions on teen drivers - and often the new rules are intended to curb wee-hour cruising.
There's "an upward national trend in fatalities that has hastened the call for legislation," says Steve Yeakel of the Montana Council for Maternal and Child Health, which lobbied for the new teen-licensing system in Big Sky country. "It's based on the recognition that traffic accidents and injuries are disproportionately high among drivers of a certain age who are out there cruising at certain hours of the night."
Backed with statistics
In California, Florida, Michigan, and Maryland, where graduated licensing is in place, the rate of fatal accidents among young drivers has dropped, as has the rate of traffic violations.
NHTSA guidelines call for preventing 15- and 16-year-olds from driving without an adult between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., mandating that seat belts be worn, abstaining from alcohol use until age 21, and limiting the number of auto passengers a young driver can carry. If a driver violates any of these rules, the license could be revoked.
Proponents of such licensing back up their position with statistics.
Although drivers between 15 and 20 account for only 7 percent of the driving population, they are involved in at least 14 percent of driving-related deaths, according to 1999 figures. A large percentage of those fatal crashes occur at night.
And the youngest drivers, those 16 and under, are involved in more fatal single-vehicle accidents than drivers of any other age group. In addition, a smaller percentage of passengers in their vehicles wear seat belts; a higher proportion of them fail to heed dangerous road conditions; and these teens tend to pack their vehicles with passengers.
"Since the mid-1980s, the death rate among 16-year-olds has been higher, and this gap is widening," says Allan Williams, an executive with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va. "Any way you look at it, 16-year-old drivers represent a growing problem."
Last fall in Bozeman, a tragic alcohol-related fatality involving a high school student on homecoming night solidified Montana legislators' resolve to act. They note that Montana drivers face the added dangers of icy roads in winter and massive big-game animals like elk, deer, and buffalo crossing those roads during the wee hours.
In addition, sociologists say young people today are more risk-taking and peripatetic than their predecessors were. "Nowadays, you have kids in Helena thinking nothing of driving 90 miles one way to Great Falls and then back in a night," says Albert Goke, supervisor of traffic safety at the Montana Department of Transportation. "In my youth, driving 15 to 20 miles a night seemed like a long way."
More worrisome, he says, is that nationally the number of 16-year-old drivers will grow over the next decade. Traffic officials are advocating graduated licensing as a way to prevent a corresponding rise in fatalities.
Not everyone is sold on the idea. Jeff Linkenbach, a faculty researcher with the Montana Social Norms Project, based at Montana State University in Bozeman, says most teenagers already drive with care. Whether tougher laws will alter the behavior of kids prone to courting trouble remains to be seen.
Customized for rural life
Montana's fresh-on-the-books version of graduated licensing is less strict than the NHTSA guidelines. The curfew doesn't kick in until midnight, and it allows exemptions for kids who work or attend religious functions or sporting events.
Mr. Goke says the Montana law is custom-made for the state's cultural nuances. Farm and ranch kids here can get a license six months after their 14th birthday. And given the distances between towns, it's almost impossible to drive to a sporting event and get home before midnight.
"We are still a very rural state, and what we do has an impact on rural children more than it would on urban residents," he says.
Perhaps the most interesting fine-tuning involves dating. The first draft of the statute restricted young drivers to no more than three people in a car. But church groups complained, and the number was increased to four.
The reason: For years, churches have been encouraging young couples to double date, on the premise that it leads to less drinking and less sexual activity.
Back on Main Street, Jane Allen still plans on cruising with friends. While she and her parents agree that being responsible is the top priority, all three know that using four wheels to connect with peers is something in Montana that goes back to the days of horse and buggies.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor