Janesville67.1°

Obeying the limit

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Mike DuPre'
January 28, 2008
— Peter Nicoloff sees the benefit of Wisconsin’s graduated driver’s licenses for teen drivers.

“The biggest distraction for me is anyone in the car, especially on hearing, even after many months. You’re talking; you’re not paying attention ...


“I love to talk,” said Nicoloff, a 17-year-old junior at Janesville’s Parker High School.


“A lot of the time it’s my fault, most of the time,” he said. “I’m very fortunate never to have had a ticket, never to have had an accident.”


Many other young people have not been so lucky.


In 2006, 88 drivers ages 16-19 were killed in traffic accidents in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.


Four of them were killed in Rock and Walworth counties. In 2005, 11 teen drivers died in traffic accidents in the two counties, and four died in wrecks in 2004.


Since 2001, the annual number of teen drivers killed on state roads has ranged from 85 to 113.


And the state’s attempt to curb death and injury among teen drivers has meant more rules and restrictions for them than their parents and teachers.


Much of the public is unsure how young drivers’ licenses are limited, but state officials think the restrictions, enacted in 2000 to create what are called graduated driver’s licenses, have saved lives, injuries and property value.


During the first nine months a young driver has his or her probationary license—or until they turn 18—they can transport only one other person who is not an immediate family member or driving instructor.


In addition, from midnight to 5 a.m., a parent, guardian, instructor or one other licensed person 21 or older must be seated beside the driver unless he or she is driving between home, school or work.


The primary reason for the law is to eliminate distraction for inexperienced drivers.


“The GDL (graduated driver’s license) is a very wise idea,” said Mike Kuehne, principal of Janesville’s Craig High School. “Students are very high-energy; they’re always talking to each other, and it can be very distracting.


“I think it’s a good idea for a young person learning to drive and to keep the passenger safe,” Kuehne said.


Carol Moore, a 17-year-old Parker senior, acknowledged that the restrictions limit distractions.


But she added: “My argument to that is if you don’t start off with distractions while driving, then how are you going to be accustomed to them nine months later?”


Scott Wasemiller, the Janesville Police Department’s liaison officer at Parker, said, “I think it is effective, especially with the midnight-to-5 a.m. restriction.”


The legal restriction gives parents a tool to limit the number of passengers and ensuing distractions in a vehicle, and it gives younger drivers an out if they are pressured by peers to transport a car full of kids, Wasemiller said.


Kuehne noted that his two sons both first drove on graduated driver’s licenses.


They didn’t always abide by the rules.


Kuehne said he spotted them both driving with more than person in the car. The infractions led to dinner table discussions and the loss of driving privileges for a day.


“The car represents freedom to students, and the consequence for not following the rules is the loss of that freedom,” Kuehne said. “Driving is a freedom that our students all too often take for granted.”


Restrictions are extended if young drivers violate them, if they are convicted of a moving violation or if their licenses are revoked or suspended for any reason.


Wasemiller thinks initial nine-month restrictions should be extended to a year.


That’s not a popular idea with teen drivers.


“I understand the restrictions,” said Leighia Francis, a 16-year-old Parker junior, “but after three months, you’re really ready to have less restrictions.”


Kara Condon, 17, also a Parker junior said:


“When I first got my license, I thought that the restrictions were unnecessary. I kind of understand them now, but I think it’s unnecessary to have them as long as they are.”


Others, such her classmate Nicoloff, disagree.


Fewer carpools, more cars

An unintended consequence of the state law that limits how many people a 16-year-old driver can transport appears to be crowded high school parking lots.


“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Scott Wasemiller, the Janesville police liaison officer at Parker High School.


High school parking lots are more crowded because fewer students can carpool legally, Wasemiller said.


“I have my parking pass. I paid $50 for it, but you pull into the lot and can’t find any place to park,” said Carol Moore, a 17-year-old Parker senior.


“I had to wait two to three months to get a parking pass,” said Haley Fenrick, 16, a Parker sophomore. “If I’m late, say 7:55 a.m., you can’t find a parking spot.”


Construction projects at both Parker and Craig high schools have pinched already tight parking, the schools’ principals said.


“We don’t have a waiting list,” Craig Principal Mike Kuehne said, “but we’re pretty much at capacity.”


Parker Principal Dale Carlson said no study has been done to determine if license restrictions on the youngest drivers have created more cars and fewer carpools, but he acknowledged:


“Yes, we have a parking crunch, and we do have a waiting list.”


Most of the students on the list are sophomores, Carlson said, because seniors and juniors have preference based on seniority.


In addition, Parker has other criteria—number of credits and good attendance—for a student parking pass.


“We have an expectation that students who are driving and parking at school are attending school on a regular basis,” Carlson said.


GRADUATED EFFECTS

In a study cited on its Web site, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation compared the three years before the graduated driver’s license law—1997-99—with the three years after the law.


The study found that 16-year-old drivers were 15 percent less likely to be involved in traffic accidents than before the law was enacted. Also found was that the youngest legal drivers were:


-- 15 percent less likely to be in a traffic crash of any type.


-- 18 percent less likely to be in a fatal accident.


-- 20 percent less likely to be in non-fatal injury accident.


-- 12 percent less likely to be in a property-damage-only crash.


But teen drivers still account for a disproportionate number of accidents.


-- In 2006, more than one in eight drivers ages 16-19 were involved in car crashes.


-- Also in 2006, teen drivers were 5.3 percent of all Wisconsin drivers, but they accounted for 14 percent of drivers who had accidents.


-- 22 of 36 passengers—61 percent—ages 16-19 who were killed in Wisconsin crashes in 2006 were riding with drivers younger than 20.


-- Weekends and late afternoons are the most dangerous times for teen drivers.


65 percent of the 88 people ages 16-19 killed in 2006 died in crashes on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The peak hour for teen accidents is between 3 and 4 p.m., both during the school year and summer vacation.



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