July 22, 2018 | ° F

Teen accident rate prompts bills to alter license privileges

On a disenchanted voyage to McDonalds several years ago, Jeffrey Masino, a Mason Gross School of the Arts junior, along with eight other passengers and one driver, said he learned firsthand the perils of packing too many people into one car.

Throwing caution to the wind, Masino said he ignored the illegality of driving with a provisionally licensed driver and too many passengers, a decision he said he later regretted.

He said when the driver began to decelerate the car along the way, a passenger sitting in between the driver and the front seat passenger accidentally kicked the gear into neutral, hurdling the car towards another vehicle in front of them.

"One minute we are cruising fine, and the next we are screaming and get jerked from the sudden brake," Masino said.

Luckily for this band of travelers, Masino said, the driver was able to regain control of the car before any damage was done. But in a state where the amount of injuries and fatalities among teen drivers and teen passengers has increased by 6 percent, the Motor Vehicle Commission asserted with its push to the Senate for several provisional license laws that it will not take for granted the safety of young and new drivers.

According to a report issued by the Teen Driver Study Commission last March, teens in New Jersey aged 17 to 20 years old represent 5 percent of the population but are involved in 12 percent of the crashes. The report noted 48 teen drivers and 19 teen passengers in vehicles driven by teenagers died in motor vehicle crashes in 2006. And according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, crashes involving teen drivers numbered 59,072 in the state last year, while 35 teen drivers and 45 passengers died in the wrecks.

These are all statistics that Pam Fischer, director of the Division of Highway Traffic Safety, said her organization, along with many state legislatures, hope to diminish. With two bills now heading to the assembly, and two others in the works, legislatures would restructure many provisions for provisional license holders.

These days, anyone with a provisional driver's license is prohibited from operating a vehicle between the hours of 12 and 5 a.m.  The S16 bill would reduce driving hours from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

But School of Arts and Sciences first-year student Mina Gayed, a driver that holds a provisional license, said he thinks this legislature is too much for new drivers.

Gayed, who has cousins in Bayonne, N.J., said he drives from his cousins' house to his house in Jersey City late at night. With the restrictions on driving hours increased, he said he would not be able to visit his family as much.

"There are enough restrictions on the provisional already," he said.

Fischer said the bill is also aimed at lowering the amount of distractions in a car by restricting passengers to one underage passenger, regardless of familial ties, with the amount of passengers over the age of 21 not being restricted.

"The thought is that [the 21-year-old passenger] is most likely going to be someone with driving experience, an adult," Fischer said. "And also they're probably going to be a parent. And we know that teens tend to behave better when there is a parent in the car. So that's kind of the rational for it."

Fischer said the passenger restriction also improves the ability to enforce that restriction. She said it is difficult to enforce now because in many instances, when a provisional driver is pulled over with a car full of passengers and the police officer asks who is a family member, all the passengers may claim to be family members, rendering the officer unable to distinguish fact from fiction.

"The more passengers you have in a car with a teen driver, the higher the risk," Fischer said.

Fischer said one major problem with teen drivers is the onus family members place on them as a chauffer for younger siblings.

"The message that we think is critical to get to parents is that your new drivers should not be considered the family transportation provider," Fischer said. "They're still a driver in training."

But Gayed said for some families, there are few alternatives to relying on young drivers.

"Usually I take my siblings out," he said. "If I'm limited to only [taking out] one, then I'd have to leave my brother or sister at home … What can you do if your parents aren't able to go out ever?"

Under "Kylie's Law," as it is most commonly known, drivers with provisional driver's licenses would place detachable decals to license plates on their car. Fischer said the failure to display the decal would result in a $100 fine.

"We want to get teens off the roads after curfew, because it's the most dangerous time on the road for any driver, but also for teens," Fischer said.

Rachel Gillett

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