Lawmakers debate changes to rules for young drivers

Lawmakers debate changes to rules for young drivers

By Jennifer Fernandez

Reducing the time teens must practice driving, and allowing them to ferry a second passenger, will likely lead to an increase in vehicle crashes involving young drivers, researchers and driver’s education officials warn.

North Carolina legislators will discuss a bill proposing changes that would do just that at 10 a.m. today in the House Transportation Committee. 

Senate Bill 157, which passed the state Senate last month, would reduce the time a young driver must hold a learner’s permit from 12 months to nine. It also would allow teens who’ve moved to the limited provisional license stage — where they no longer must have a fully licensed driver supervising them — to ferry a second passenger under age 21 as long as they are only going to and from school.

Jordan Driving School instructor Stephen Fister works with a student. Credit: Courtesy of Jordan Driving School

A third piece would extend through December a pandemic-era rule to temporarily reduce from 12 months to six the time a teen must hold a learner’s permit before being able to graduate to the next level of licensing.

The House’s version of the bill, House Bill 261, would also extend the pandemic-era change and permanently reduce the learner’s permit period to nine months. The two chambers will have to agree on what to include in any final version of the bill.

Sen. Vickie Sawyer (R-Mooresville), a primary sponsor of the bill, declined to comment to NC Health News. 

Sawyer told the Associated Press last month, however, that the legislation responds to young drivers’ requests and would also more closely align the waiting period with that of young drivers in Virginia and South Carolina.

North Carolina’s graduated driver’s license program dates to the late 1990s, when the state became one of the first to require young drivers go through levels of training before getting a full license.

Backlog fuels delays

More than 500 teen drivers are going through the driving portion of driver’s education in Wake County right now.

Another 1,000 are ready to go but waiting for instructors to become available, said Mike Chappell, human resources director for Jordan Driving School in Garner, which provides the driver education classes for Wake County Public Schools.

Chappell, who has more than four decades of experience with driver’s education, said the problem is twofold. There’s the backlog created by the pandemic, when in-person contact was curtailed, and now there’s a shortage of workers available to teach the behind-the-wheel portion required before teens can get their learner’s permit.

He recently hired almost a dozen instructors, but he could use another 20, Chappell said. And that doesn’t include filling openings for any future retirements or instructors who leave for higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

While he understands the temporary changes to address the backlog, permanently reducing the time students must hold a learner’s permit worries him, Chappell said.

He said he saw a big difference once the state passed the graduated driver’s license law in 1997 when he was a driver’s ed teacher.

“It was a big relief to me,” he said, “because I knew then the kid was going to get six hours with me … but the parent had them for a year.”

No notice

When Molly Ward’s daughter made an appointment to get her limited provisional license in February, it opened up so many possibilities. Chief among them, she would be able to get herself to and from work to make money to help pay for college.

But when they got to the Division of Motor Vehicles office in east Raleigh, they learned that she needed 12 months of driving practice, not six. That pandemic-era rule had expired in December.

Her daughter cried, Ward said, “and I really hurt for her.”

Ward said she doesn’t remember hearing anything about the change or getting anything in the mail at their Wake Forest home. They also didn’t get a warning when they made the online appointment that her daughter wouldn’t be eligible.

Unless something changes, she’ll have to wait five more months to become eligible.

Ward welcomes the section of SB157 that would extend the pandemic-era rule, even though it might come too late for her daughter. 

“If this passed and went into effect immediately, we’d be at the DMV on Monday,” she said.

More passengers

While Ward would like to see the pandemic rule grandfathered in until the backlog eases, she doesn’t agree with the other changes being proposed.

Specifically, she said she would never allow her daughter to have multiple teen passengers who are not family members.

“I think that’s an incredibly bad idea,” she said. “I don’t even want a sibling with her for a while.”

According to data collected by the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety-Highway Loss Data Institute, adding teen passengers increases the risk for accidents.

“When teen passengers are prohibited, 15- to 17-year-old drivers’ fatal crash rates are 21 percent lower than when two or more are allowed,” the organization said on its website. “Allowing only one teen passenger reduces the rate 7 percent.”

Chappell, with the driving school, said it doesn’t make sense to allow more passengers for teens still learning to drive.

“I think every time we add another distraction in that car with a young driver, it just means … that’s going to take attention away from what you’re doing on the road,” he said.

Comparing states

“Preliminary data are becoming available which indicate that during the period of the temporary reduction to six months, there was an 11.65 percent increase in 16-year-old driver crashes in our state, even after controlling for all variables,” Tom Vitaglione told the Senate Committee on Commerce and Insurance in March when the Senate bill was discussed. Vitaglione, now retired, helped to implement the graduated driver’s license program in the 1990s when he was still in state government.

Vitaglione argued that simply fixing the sunset dates in the pandemic rule would take care of the problem, and he opposed shortening the learning period.

But as legislators discuss the changes, a bevy of data points have been shared about crash rates among young drivers in surrounding states that require teens to spend fewer months under a learner’s permit.

People have asked about that data being shared to justify the changes, said Natalie O’Brien, a senior research associate with the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. But she said the data that’s being shared isn’t useful for understanding young driver licensing systems.

Some information comes from a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration report on 2020 data. It shows states around North Carolina with lower fatal crashes that year involving “young drivers.”

Among the problems with the data, it includes drivers aged 15 to 20, she said, which means it’s hard to make a true comparison, because that group includes more experienced 18- to 20-year-olds, who have fewer crashes. Meanwhile, the effects of graduated driver’s license programs are primarily on the youngest drivers, mostly 16-year-olds, who really need that time on the road and intensive oversight.

“That has always been the intent, to protect young beginners while they are acquiring all the skills and understanding they need to be safe drivers,” she said.

The data being shopped around also shows fatal crashes during the COVID-19 pandemic, when driving habits changed, there were fewer people — and fewer kids — on the road. That’s another reason why the data is not comparable, O’Brien said. It also doesn’t take into account the variances in young driver populations between states, nor does it reflect how young driver licensing programs differ, she said.

The data also doesn’t control for other factors that could influence the crash rates to make them comparable across states.

“Looking at simple percentages is never enough,” O’Brien said.

Practice takes time

People may not understand the implications of such changes to the licensing system, O’Brien said.

Research shows crashes and deaths among teen drivers decreased when they were required to spend more time learning with a licensed driver supervising them, she said.

Instructor Stephen Fister goes over what to check under the hood with students taking driver’s education through Jordan Driving School in Wake County. Credit: Courtesy of Jordan Driving School

After North Carolina switched to its graduated driver’s license program in 1998, crashes involving 16-year-old drivers declined by 38 percent, according to data collected by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. Fatal and serious injury crashes declined by 46 percent.

There’s no data on the effects of shifting from a 12-month learning period to a nine-month period. Only a few states have a nine-month learning period like what is being proposed for North Carolina, and none have been evaluated so those states’ data can be compared to others’ data, she said.

The principle is pretty simple, she said: The more experience and practice that you have, the less likely you are to crash.

And it is already hard for parents and teens to complete a lot of practice with a variety of experiences in those 12 months.

“The main reason teens crash is because they’re inexperienced,” O’Brien said. “It’s just a dangerous thing. It’s a complicated task to learn.

“Trying to learn to be a master at something can’t be compressed.”

It’s not just about time, according to O’Brien. It’s also about experience: learning to drive on different types of roads, learning what to do when someone is riding a bicycle in front of you, learning to respond to a crash in your lane.

“It’s when they’re with their parents during that year when they’re really getting the experience that they need,” she said.

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