Bill would raise full driver's license age to 19

Staff WriterJune 16, 2011 

  • North Carolina's gas and diesel fuel tax, now 32.5 cents a gallon, will rise to a record 35 cents on July 1 - unless the General Assembly decides to put a cap on it.

    The tax rate is adjusted every six months according to a legislative formula, rising or falling as a reflection of wholesale fuel prices. The state Department of Revenue, which does the official math, announced the 35-cent rate Wednesday.

    The General Assembly website reported incorrectly Wednesday that a Senate bill to cap the tax at its current rate had been added to the House calendar. But the legislation, Senate Bill 751, is one of several gas-tax measures that are bottled up in House and Senate committees.

    A 2.5 cent increase would generate more than $125 million in tax revenue for the state Department of Transportation. When GOP leaders rearranged the budget to boost DOT spending for road repairs and bridge replacements, they did not say whether they intended to allow the tax rate to rise in July.

— Young North Carolinians would have to wait an extra year - until they turn 19 - to get an unrestricted adult driver's license under a Senate bill amended Wednesday by a House subcommittee.

The higher driving age was narrowly endorsed in a 5-4 vote, along with other measures to toughen the state's graduated licensing program for young drivers ages 15 to 18. The measure was expected to go to the House floor today.

Also Wednesday, the House approved a separate transportation measure that would ban hand-held cellphone use for commercial truck drivers and bar the state Department of Transportation from building raised center medians on parts of highways in Kinston and Asheboro, where businesses have complained.

North Carolina allows teens ages 15 to 18 to start driving with limited, supervised driving privileges that increase with age. The program is credited with reducing accidents by giving teens the chance to practice with adult supervision before they start driving on their own.

Some legislators want to discourage teens from skipping the graduated licensing program by waiting until age 18 to get their licenses. Fewer would be willing, they said, to wait until they're 19.

"We want to remove that incentive to avoid the graduated licensing program," said Sen. David Rouzer, a Johnston County Republican who sponsored the bill.

Critics said 18-year-olds deserve the privileges of adulthood.

"Of course people who are 18 are adults," said Republican Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, the subcommittee co-chairman. "Raising from 18 to 19, I would say I've got problems with that."

60 hours on a log

Stam's subcommittee also endorsed a new requirement that young drivers submit signed logs to show they had driven at least 60 hours over several months, with their parents or other qualified adults riding in the front seat. The Senate originally approved a mandate for 120 hours of supervised driving.

Rouzer proposed to cut the hours in half to make the legislation more palatable to teens and parents. Even so, House members shared his concern that tougher requirements would drive more young drivers out of the program, which starts at 15 with required driver's education classes.

Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Mount Airy Republican, said that's what happened with the eldest of her four children.

"He didn't want to go through the graduated (licensing)," said Stevens, also a subcommittee co-chairman. "He did what his friends do - wait till he's 18 and get an unrestricted license. I think the more restrictions you put on kids, and on parents, the more you're going to have inexperienced drivers just walk in at 18 and get their license."

The 19-year-old change would affect age limits set in other laws, including a ban on cellphone use that now applies to drivers under 18.

If the amended bill passes the House, it will return to the Senate for another vote.

The House voted 86-29 Wednesday evening to approve another Senate bill that was expanded with a variety of measures when it passed through the House Transportation Committee this week. Renamed the "Omnibus Transportation Act," the bill would:

Ban the use of hand-held phones and other electronic devices by commercial truck drivers. That would put the state in conformity with a similar federal rule, which will govern interstate truck traffic, set to take effect this fall.

Protect the confidentiality of turnpike billing records when the state begins collecting electronic tolls late this year on its first modern toll road, the Triangle Expressway in Research Triangle Park and western Wake County.

Relax highway weight limits in some circumstances for heavy trucks hauling concrete and other goods.

Force DOT to cancel plans to build raised center medians, instead of center turn lanes, on parts of U.S. 70 in Kinston and U.S. 64 in Asheboro, where some businesses have complained they will lose customers.

Democratic Rep. Ray Rapp of Mars Hill and Republican Rep. Ric Killian of Charlotte urged legislators to delete the median provisions, saying it was wrong for politicians to second-guess professional engineers.

"We must stop politicizing transportation appropriations," Killian said. "We shouldn't be making these decisions about whether certain projects happen in our districts."

Their call to remove the U.S. 70 and U.S. 64 provisions was rejected after other Democrats and Republicans criticized DOT.

"If you think you're going to take politics out of DOT, you're in Disney World, my friend," said Rep. Harold Brubaker, an Asheboro Republican. He has campaigned in previous years to kill the planned U.S. 64 median.

It's a city project

The legislation had been expanded Tuesday to bar DOT from building a center median on part of Falls of Neuse Road in North Raleigh, an item requested by Republican Rep. Marilyn Avila of Raleigh.

But Thomas McCormick, Raleigh's city attorney, pointed out to Avila on Wednesday that DOT is not involved in the 1.3-mile Falls of Neuse project. The city is building it, with local and federal money.

Avila amended the bill on the House floor Wednesday evening to remove the Falls of Neuse project, but she added her own criticisms of DOT and city engineers.

She told McCormick she wanted the Raleigh City Council to reconsider its decision to build the median, and its decision not to add traffic signals at two Falls of Neuse intersections where residents have expressed concern.

Kevin Lacy, DOT's chief traffic engineer, said the medians were safety measures planned as part of widening projects by DOT engineers in consultation with local residents and officials. DOT also helped Raleigh officials design the Falls of Neuse project.

"We have a process we follow," Lacy said in an interview. "Our general position has been to keep politics out of the engineering process."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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