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Dale Wetzel / Associated Press, Published January 29 2011

Parents seek North Dakota driver limits: Argue restrictions for teens would increase safety

BISMARCK – Speaking haltingly and looking through reddened eyes, a group of parents who have had teenage children injured or killed in traffic accidents implored North Dakota lawmakers on Friday to en­dorse new restrictions on young drivers.

“I find it ironic in this state it’s more difficult to get a hunting license than a driver’s license,” said Dennis Burdol­ski of Bismarck whose 14-year-old daughter, Lisa, was killed on Halloween 2009 when the car she was riding in with four friends overturned on a gravel road near Menoken. The car’s driver was 15.

Among other restrictions, the proposed legislation would limit the number of passengers a young driver could legally carry, to keep distractions to a minimum. Burdolski was among several parents who spoke Friday at a North Dakota House Transportation Committee hearing on the legislation who said they believed stricter laws regulating teenage drivers could save lives.

North Dakota is the only state in the nation that lacks a “graduated driver’s license” program for young people, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Supporters of the measure have assembled a coalition that includes several state agencies. Among the state officials speaking in the bill’s favor Friday were Terry Dwelle, state health officer; Francis Ziegler, director of the Department of Transportation; and Col. James Prochniak, superintendent of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. Gov. Jack Dalrymple has spoken favorably of the effort.

The North Dakota House defeated a similar proposal two years ago, and opponents argued Friday that the state’s existing laws give parents broad authority to decide when their teenagers may drive.

Mark Knudsvig, a Berthold farmer who has sons aged 17, 14 and 12, said he and his wife have closely supervised their older boys’ driving.

Knudsvig said he agreed with some of the bill’s provisions, including its ban on cell phone use by teenage drivers until they obtain an unrestricted driver’s license.

“If you think (teenage drivers) need to be older and more responsible, fine,” Knudsvig told committee lawmakers. “But you guys are putting a blanket restriction on a lot of people that maybe don’t need it. Right now, we do believe that there are sufficient rules in place.”

The committee did not take action on the legislation. It will make a recommendation later on whether the North Dakota House should approve or defeat the measure.

North Dakota law now allows a 14-year-old to obtain a driving instructional permit if he or she passes a written exam and eyesight test. The young driver must be accompanied by someone who is at least 18 and has at least three years’ driving experience.

Once the 14-year-old has had the permit for six months, he or she may get a restricted driver’s license by completing required driver training and passing a proficiency test.

The license allows its holder to drive a parent’s or guardian’s vehicle unaccompanied. They may not carry more passengers than the vehicle’s manufacturer suggests as a maximum number.

Once a driver turns 16, he or she may have full driving privileges and is no longer restricted to using a parent’s or guardian’s car or truck.

The proposed legislation, sponsored by Rep. George Keiser, R-Bismarck, extends the instructional permit restrictions from six months to a year if the driver is younger than 16.

During the year’s instructional time, a young driver would have to accumulate at least 50 hours’ driving time in a variety of circumstances, with an adult driver seated alongside.

The teenager and a parent would have to attest to the teenager’s practicing on urban, paved roads and rural, gravel roads, as well as driving at night and during snowy, icy winter conditions.

Once the instructional time was up, the young driver would be eligible for an intermediate driver’s license at age 15 if he or she passed a road test. The driver could get an unrestricted license at age 16.

The proposed law would bar 14- and 15-year-old drivers from using cell phones except in emergencies. They would not be able to have more than one teenage passenger, unless an adult was present or if the passengers were siblings going to or from school.

A 14- or 15-year old driver would also be prohibited from driving without an adult present between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., unless he or she was driving to or from work, school or a “religious activity,” the proposed law says.

Sandy Clark, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Farm Bureau, said intermediate license holders should be able to drive until midnight. She said the Farm Bureau, which is North Dakota’s largest farmers’ organization, opposed the bill, although she said its restrictions on cell phone use and passenger limits were acceptable.

“We think that 9 p.m. is too early,” Clark said. “A lot of these young people are responsible, and we don’t think we should penalize all of them.”

Robert Foss, director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina, said motor vehicle crashes accounted for 39 percent of the deaths of North Dakota youth aged 14 to 17 in 2009. Drivers aged 16 through 19 accounted for the greatest percentage of crashes, he said.

“This is an issue largely of lack of experience, rather than age,” Foss said. “It’s not really a teenage driver problem. It’s a young beginning driver problem.”

The bill is HB1256.