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Published September 22 2010

Group seeks graduated North Dakota driver's license plan

A group that wants North Dakota teenagers to drive with a permit for a year before getting their license hopes more education will convince lawmakers who defeated the bill last year to approve a modified version next session.

The goal, said Gene LaDoucer, a member of the North Dakota Coalition for Graduated Driver Licensing, is to give teens more supervised experience behind the wheel in all types of weather before they start driving alone.

“There’s a misconception out there that the aim of GDL is to restrict teen drivers, and that’s absolutely not the case,” said LaDoucer, a AAA spokesman. “It’s meant to develop them in a way that reduces the crash risk for both them as well as others who may be passengers with them or sharing the road with them.”

Currently, North Dakota is the only state with no provisions of a GDL system. Minnesota has both passenger and night provisions, while South Dakota has night provisions only.

North Dakota teens may obtain a driving permit at age 14 if they pass a knowledge test and vision exam.

After six months with a permit, those under age 16 are eligible for a restricted driver’s license if they complete a driver’s education course and pass a driving test.

The coalition, which has representatives from 19 agencies mostly in the health, traffic safety and insurance fields, wants to stretch the permit period to 12 months. As a result, teens could still get their permits at age 14, but they wouldn’t be eligible to apply for a restricted driver’s license until age 15.

The one-year permit phase would be followed by a minimum six-month intermediate license phase. Those license holders could drive unsupervised except from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and they couldn’t have more than one teen passenger in the car without an adult present, LaDoucer said.

The system would allow exceptions for driving to and from work, school and religious activities, and for transporting siblings.

LaDoucer said the coalition is working closely with the state’s insurance, transportation and health departments to craft a bill that will address lawmakers’ objections from last session, which included concerns that the state was infringing on parental rights and that it would cost too much to issue three licenses. The modified bill calls for a single coded driver’s license.

“We’re very optimistic,” LaDoucer said.

Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, has said he will sponsor the bill if re-elected in November, and that Rep. Stanley Lyson, R-Williston, has agreed to co-sponsor it.

Gruchalla, a retired 25-year North Dakota Highway Patrol officer, said teens often take driver’s education in the spring, drive with a permit for six months and then get their license just before winter arrives because they don’t want to take the driving test on icy roads.

“Kids just aren’t getting that experience behind the wheel before you turn them loose,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528