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Girl, 6, crashes car: Can laws make young drivers safer?

A Pittsburgh girl, 6, crashed her mom's car Sunday morning. In South Dakota, lawmakers addressed slightly older drivers in legislation aimed at curbing teen car crashes.

Chet Brokaw/AP
Courtney Denett urges the South Dakota Senate Transportation Committee on to pass a bill banning the use of cellphones by beginning drivers on Monday, Feb. 4. The Rapid City high school student is holding a sign cars could display to indicate that the driver is not using a cellphone.

When a Pittsburgh girl, 6, crashed her mom's car while trying to drive across town to visit her father, no one was injured, say Pittsburgh police.

Police haven't released the name of the girl or her mother, who was reportedly still sleeping when the child took the her car keys about 9 a.m. Sunday. Police Sgt. Jerry Parker tells reporters the little girl is tall for her age, but adds: "How she knew how to operate a car, your guess is as good as mine."

She hit two parked vehicles, pushing one of them into a third, before hitting a utility pole, but police haven't said if anyone will face charges.

On the other side of the country, South Dakota lawmakers are seeking to protect young drivers with a package of recommendations that would ban beginning drivers from using cellphones behind the wheel and make other changes aimed at reducing teen traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

South Dakota is one of only a few states that allow 14-year-olds to begin driving with learners' permits, a tradition based on the need for teenagers to drive on farms, said state Sen. Craig Tieszen (R) of Rapid City, the chairman of the Teen Driving Task Force. Many states require young drivers to be 15 or older to get learners' permits.

The South Dakota Senate Transportation Committee voted 7-1 to approve a measure that would prohibit all beginning drivers from using cellphones or other electronic devices until they can get an unrestricted driver's license at age 16. At least 30 states and the District of Columbia have already banned the use of all cellphones by novice drivers.

In 10 states and the District of Columbia, all drivers are prohibited from using hand-held cellphones while driving. The South Dakota legislature has repeatedly rejected measures to ban cellphone use or texting by all drivers, but members of the committee said it's time to take phones out of the hands of beginning drivers.

The committee also recommended that those with learners' permits should have to wait longer before driving unaccompanied. Another measure would set up a coordinated drivers' education system with statewide standards for course content, instruction, testing and certification of instructors.

The proposals, which now go to the full state senate, were recommended by a Teen Driving Task Force that was set up two years ago by the legislature.

Young drivers should not use cellphones because they are inexperienced and can have trouble dealing with distractions, said Tieszen, who chaired the task force. "Although some 14-year-olds are capable of taking on the complex task of driving, many are not," he added

The task force reported that South Dakota has a high rate of fatal crashes among young drivers, and young South Dakota drivers are more likely to have accidents than older drivers.

For example, motor vehicle crashes account for 44 percent of all deaths among South Dakota residents ages 14-17, but crashes are responsible for only 39 percent of deaths among that age group nationally. The state Public Safety Department reports that 16- and 17-year-old drivers represented just 2.7 percent of all South Dakota drivers in 2011, but accounted for 5.9 percent of crashes involving deaths or injuries.

Courtney Denett, a Rapid City high school student, urged the committee to pass the measure, saying a driver's eyes are off the road for at least five seconds while texting or otherwise dealing with a phone.

"If they're new drivers, I don't think they should be focused on electronics in the car, but on the road itself and the people driving around them," Denett said.

But Sen. David Omdahl, R-Sioux Falls, said young drivers could become even more distracted if they hold their phones below window level so police cannot see what they are doing. Law officers would have difficulty enforcing a ban on cellphones, but parents could forbid their children from using phones while driving, he said.

"You're looking at government to do your dirty work, so to speak. I don't like that," Omdahl said.

South Dakota law allows instruction permits to be issued at age 14, the youngest age in the nation for driving while accompanied by an adult. Those young drivers can graduate to restricted permits that allow them to drive alone in the daytime after six months, or just 90 days if they have completed a drivers' education course.

The committee approved a bill that would require beginning drivers to keep those instruction permits for a year before moving to restricted permits that allow them to drive alone. Those who complete drivers' education courses could move to restricted permits after nine months.

The measures recommended by the task force would still allow young drivers to get unrestricted licenses at 16 if they pass a written test and a driving test.

Committee members said they particularly like the measure requiring state officials to set up a coordinated drivers' education system that would make those courses consistent statewide. Such courses now are organized differently from community to community, they said.

Another measure approved by the committee would limit the number of unrelated minors who could be passengers in a car driven by a teen with a restricted permit. Those limits would be eased for trips to school or school events.

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