Pa. Passes Tougher Rules On New Teen Drivers

Amy Worden
Philadelphia Inquirer

When it comes to carloads of passengers and unbuckled seat belts, Pennsylvania is finally enacting laws that most states already have for new teenage drivers.

Those drivers will soon face limits on the number of nonfamily passengers they can carry, and they will have to complete more training hours behind the wheel, thanks to a bill that cleared the General Assembly on Wednesday. Gov. Corbett says he’ll sign it.

But for now, nothing in state law bars teens from texting while driving.

The new law also will make driving without a seat belt a primary offense for teen drivers and their passengers — meaning police can pull over a vehicle for that violation without additional cause.

The bill passed the House without debate Wednesday. The 188-6 vote came after five years of wrangling in both chambers over specifics. None of the “no” votes came from representatives of the five-county Philadelphia area.

The final version limits teen drivers to one passenger — immediate family excepted — for the first six months after they receive a junior license. You can get such a license in Pennsylvania at 161/2.

If young drivers finish those six months with a spotless record, they will still be limited by the new law. Until age 18, they can carry no more than three passengers who aren’t in their immediate family.

“For the first time, this bill backs up in law parents who say that for the first six months of having a license, the teen driver can’t take a carload of friends to the pizzeria after a football game,” said bill sponsor Rep. Katharine Watson (R., Bucks), whose district has had several recent teen tragedies, including a crash involving five teens, two of whom died and one of whom was badly injured.

“It was a survivable crash,” Watson said. “They died because they didn’t buckle up.”

The bill also expands behind-the-wheel training from 50 to 65 hours and requires it to include 10 hours of driving at night and in inclement weather.

A spokeswoman for Corbett said he would sign the bill in the next 10 days. It will take effect Nov. 28.

Watson, who initially sought to extend the one-passenger-only limit to all drivers up to age 18, said she was pleased with the result, especially a provision requiring the state to prepare a biannual report of teen traffic-accident data.

She said that if the report showed lives were still being endangered, lawmakers could revise the new law.

In 2010, fatalities in crashes involving a 16- or 17-year-old driver increased 43 percent over the previous year, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Vehicle crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for teenagers.

The Pennsylvania AAA Federation, the association of AAA auto clubs in the state, applauded the bill’s passage.

“This age group’s fatality rate is four times that of adults,” federation executive director Ted Leonard said. “Inexperienced young drivers are prone to peer pressure, inclined to take risks, are distracted by young passengers, and tempted to multitask behind the wheel.”

He said, “It’s not only teen drivers, but their passengers and other drivers on the road who are at risk.”

Until now, Pennsylvania was one of only seven states without the bill’s main provisions, Watson said. New Jersey limits its youngest drivers to one nonfamily passenger and bars them from using cellphones and other mobile devices while driving.

Efforts to ban texting while driving have sputtered in the Pennsylvania legislature. Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery), sponsor of a bill banning texting and use of handheld cellphones while driving, tried to call attention to this issue during discussion of the teen-safety bill. He blamed the other party’s lawmakers, saying, “They continue to delay, and every minute they delay, another person is injured or, God forbid, killed.”

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