Tougher Teen Driving Bill On Way to Mass. Gov.’s Desk

By | December 28, 2006

Soon-to-be teen drivers would have to spend more time behind the wheel with their parents and face stiffer penalties for speeding and drag racing under a bill that could be headed to Gov. Mitt Romney’s desk by the end of the week.

The compromise version of the bill unveiled at a news conference Tuesday increases penalties and requires more training and education but jettisons some of the more controversial sections of earlier versions, including a ban on cell phones and a hike in the driving age.

The bill would increase the amount of time teen drivers have to spend behind the wheel with their parents from 12 hours to 40 hours as part of basic driver’s education. That time would be reduced from 40 to 30 hours if the teen completes an advanced driver training course.

The number of required hours spent on the road as part of basic driver’s education would double from six to 12 under the bill.

“Forty hours? That’s really pushing it!” said Ted Clements, 15, of Northampton. “When you’re at the teenage level, you don’t want to spend too much time with your parents.”

But others said the more time spent with an experienced driver, the better.

Billy Remillard, a 14-year-old from Chicopee, said he’s nervous about getting on the road alone and facing the possibility of drunken and reckless drivers.

“If I spend more time learning with someone who’s seen that sort of stuff, that’ll help make me a better driver,” he said.

The bill also imposes new penalties. Drivers with learner’s permits caught speeding would face a 90-day suspension of their permits on the first offense and a one-year suspension for the second. Currently first and second time offenders face a $50 fine.

The bill also clamps down on drag racing.

Those with learner’s permits or junior operating licenses would have their license or permit suspended for a year for a first offense and pay a $250 fine and $500 reinstatement fee. A second offense would bring a three-year suspension and double the fines. Those caught drag racing would also have to attend a “driver attitudinal retraining course.”

Currently a first offense for drag racing brings a $100 to $500 fine and a 30-day suspension. A second offense brings up to a $1,000 fine and a 180-day suspension.

Jerry Besser, who has a 15-year-old son, said increasing the amount of time new drivers spend with their parents is a good idea.

“I remember how I was when I started driving,” the 48-year-old from Southampton said. “I was a little reckless, and I think it’s smart to make sure kids are responsible as possible.”

But Steve McCullough called 40 hours of adult supervision “excessive.”

“Some kids might need more time than others,” said McCullough, a 47-year-old from Belchertown with a 15-year-old eager for a driver’s license. “But I don’t think it will have a whole lot of effect.”

Because the bill is coming up during an informal session, the objection of a single lawmaker could kill it.

Legislative leaders in the House and Senate defended the bill, saying they dropped some of the more contentious pieces to increase the bill’s chances of making it to Romney’s desk.

“This is a tough, no-nonsense bill,” said Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, Senate chairman of the Transportation Committee. “Once one child gets hit with the penalties in this bill, every child in that person’s school will know that we take this seriously.”

Teens can get a learner’s permit when they turn 16 and a driver’s license when they are 16 1/2. They remain a junior operator until they turn 18.

The bill dropped a section that would require anyone wanting to register a car to have a driver’s license. Supporters of the section said it would prevent illegal immigrants and other unlicensed drivers from registering cars.

But Rep. Joseph Wagner, D-Chicopee, House chairman of the Transportation Committee, said the section would have prevented the blind and others from registering cars. Legislative leaders said the provision could be revisited when the new Legislature takes office next week.

Wagner and Baddour also said the new Legislature could take up a separate bill addressing cell phone use for all drivers, not just teens.

Wagner said the bill unveiled Tuesday would be the first to tighten restrictions on teen drivers since 1998. That law decreased accidents, but didn’t go far enough, he said.

“What we were doing really was licensing drivers that lacked an appropriate level of experience,” he said.

Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, said he’s spoken with officials in Romney’s office and is confident he supports the bill. A spokesman for Romney declined comment until they had a chance to review the final legislation.

The bill would also require driving schools be licensed by the Registrar of Motor Vehicles, and require the Registrar to come up with a standardized statewide written driving test;

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Associated Press writer Adam Gorlick in Springfield contributed to this report.

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