RALEIGH — Young North Carolinians who want to drive before age 18 would have to spend more quality time in the car with their parents under a Senate-approved bill to make big changes in the state's graduated licensing system.
Before young drivers could move up from a learner's permit, they would have to submit signed logs to show that they had driven at least 120 hours over several months with parents or other qualified adults in the front seat.
A House committee today will consider the legislation, which adds other requirements intended to improve the training young drivers get before they go out on the roads alone.
The bill sponsored by Sen. David Rouzer, a Johnston County Republican, cleared the Senate last week on a 49-0 vote. Rouzer said it was based on recommendations from a task force seeking to reduce teen highway deaths in Johnston County and across the state.
He acknowledged that some parents might question a mandate for 120 hours of supervised driving.
"It's a lot of hours," Rouzer said Tuesday. "We've got a lot of deaths on the highway, too. What do you do? We've got to do something."
Driver safety experts say Rouzer's bill would give North Carolina one of the nation's most restrictive young-driver laws. They are divided about whether it would save lives.
"Our concern is that if these requirements get too out of hand, more kids will just delay until 18 to get their license," said Rob Foss, director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at UNC-Chapel Hill. "Then they're starting out with no protection. They don't have to take driver's education, and they don't have the graduated licensing process. It's just pass the test and you can go."
To get in-car training
North Carolina's graduated licensing system gives youngsters permission to drive in stages, starting as young as 15. The law puts limits on where and when they can drive without front-seat supervision by a qualified adult, with restrictions that are relaxed over time.
But, except for the few hours behind the wheel in driver's education class, the graduated licensing law doesn't require them to spend time behind the wheel.
"Maybe that's one of the reasons why when they run off the road, they don't know how to get back on the road," Rouzer said. "They've never had that in-car training."
Kevin Lacy, chief traffic engineer for the state Department of Transportation, endorsed Rouzer's effort to get parents more involved.
"Anything we can do to get that young driver more supervised driving by people with experience is a positive thing," Lacy said. "The question is how you make that real to everybody. And that's what this bill attempts to do."
Rouzer's bill would give beginning drivers credit for up to 10 hours of supervised driving per week, so it would take at least four months to get the required 120 hours. At least 10 hours would involve nighttime driving.
The driver would have to submit the log to the Division of Motor Vehicles, signed by the parent or other supervising driver, in order to move up from a learner's permit to a provisional license. Rouzer's bill specifies penalties for falsifying the log.
Other provisions include steps to revoke the provisional license as soon as the young driver is charged with violating seatbelt laws or committing a criminal moving violation.
"We're looking at where we could improve the graduated licensing system as well as what we could do to encourage teens to think before they start going 85 mph down the road and fall off the road and can't figure out how to get back on," Rouzer said.
René Hart of Cary said Rouzer's proposal sounded like a good idea.
"I'm the parent of a 16-year-old son who has not yet hit the roads," Hart said by email. "I definitely support this bill, although I question the validity the log would have, even if signed off on by the parent."
Parents on the spot
Julie Newman of Wake Forest said her son will get his license in July.
"Rather than 120 hours of time with a parent or adult (which is probably logged during the full year of the permit) why not require a defensive driving class within the first year of having the license?" Newman said by email.
Foss and Tom Vitaglione, chairman of the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force, which advises the legislature, said a few states have requirements for logs and 20 or 30 hours of supervised driving experience.
"There's no evidence that it works," Vitaglione said.
He endorsed Rouzer's effort, but he worried about turning parents off.
"We're concerned that if you make it harder, we will actually be losing their participation and their guidance of their children," Vitaglione said. "They might say this is government going way overboard."
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