Teens on the road

Fatal accidents lead to proposed new licensing regulations

If the Nevada Legislature approves new driving regulations in 2001, teens will spend more time practicing before they hit the road with a carload of friends.

If the Nevada Legislature approves new driving regulations in 2001, teens will spend more time practicing before they hit the road with a carload of friends.

Photo By David Robert

It was a parent’s nightmare.

One January night in 1997, Suzette Hunt heard sirens pass by her Gardnerville home. Her 16-year-old daughter, Louise, was late returning home, which was rare. Hunt decided to follow the sirens. She drove a short three miles and, horrified, saw her maroon Honda crashed into a pole.

One girl, Louise’s friend, had been killed on impact.

Louise had her license for only two weeks before the accident. Before getting her license, she’d practiced with a learner’s permit for two weeks. Her total behind-the-wheel driving experience totaled about one month. She hadn’t taken a driver’s education course.

That night, she and seven friends—including the passengers of another friend’s car that wouldn’t start—crammed into the Honda to head home after a party. She said she hadn’t been drinking. Later tests proved her right.

Another car left the party at the same time. Road games began between the two vehicles. Louise ended up on a dirt road, heading toward an intersection with U.S. Highway 395. Urged on by her peers, Louise decided to race.

After reaching speeds of about 75 mph, Louise tried to brake for the highway intersection. The back of her car started to fishtail. Louise veered off the road. Her car hit a pole. A girlfriend not wearing a seatbelt in the back seat died instantly.

Louise’s accident happened before new laws passed in 1997, which require teens to put in 50 hours of on-the-road driving under the supervision of an adult before getting their licenses. Teens now must also pass a driver’s education course before hitting the road with a carload of pals.

But some parents and lawmakers don’t think these rules go far enough. They’d like to see new legislation that would require teens to spend an additional four months practicing driving skills with a provisional license that would restrict night driving or driving with passengers other than siblings.

Statistics from Nevada’s Legislative Council Bureau explain why parents and lawmakers are still worried:

· Car crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for teenagers.

· Teens ages 16 and 17 make up only 1.9 percent of Nevada’s drivers, but they made up 7.2 percent of Nevada’s fatal crashes in 1999.

· In 1999, a youth between the ages of 16 and 20 was involved in a fatal crash every six days in the United States.

In Northern Nevada, the numbers are less real than the faces of friends and classmates killed in car accidents.

Over the summer, Wooster High School student Daniel Solis, 16, was killed after being ejected from a friend’s car. The car flipped as the teens drove away from egging a house.

In October, Galena High School student Jenny Pottey, 17, died after over-correcting her vehicle into the path of a truck driving down Mount Rose Highway.

In November, Reno High School student Mark Aguilar, 14, was thrown out of and crushed by his friend’s Jeep Cherokee while they were driving on the Reno High athletic field.

“The biggest problem of teen driving is that they believe they are invincible and immortal,” said Cris Welmerink, a Reno mother of four. “They don’t understand the seriousness of driving a 2,000-pound car that can kill someone.”

After Louise’s accident and the death of her friend, Louise contacted state Assemblywoman Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas. Cegavske decided to take action.

“Car accidents are the No. 1 killer of our kids,” Cegavske said. “It’s not drugs or guns, although we still need to take care of those. When something is No. 1, you must do something about it.”

In 1999, she sponsored a bill that would create a graduated driving license program for Nevada’s teens. The bill passed in both houses of the Nevada Legislature but was never signed by Gov. Kenny Guinn, who told reporters that the penalties were too stiff for violators.

To be re-introduced this year, Cegavske’s bill calls for changes in learners’ permits, including a requirement that 10 of a teen’s 50 practice hours be at night.

And the program adds a stage to the licensing process. After proving success with a learner’s permit, teens would progress to a provisional license that restricts driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. for one year. Teens also wouldn’t be able to drive with passengers under 18 other than family members for four months. Exceptions would be made for teens driving from school, work or church at night, who can provide proof to a police officer or judge.

Students with provisional licenses would have to remain crash- and conviction-free for at least 12 consecutive months to get their regular driver’s license.

To appease Guinn’s concerns, the 2001 version of the graduated licensing bill would include a provision allowing the judge on the case to determine the penalty. If approved, the majority of the proposed bill would take effect July 1, 2002.

Charlie Hawkins, a Reed High School sophomore who has his learner’s permit, predicted that teens would be furious when they find out that they have to spend four to 12 months dealing with increased restrictions on their licenses.

“I wouldn’t want to not drive at night or without passengers, because that’s the best part of getting your license,” Hawkins said. “I don’t think teens would follow it. … A lot less kids will be motivated to get their license.”

But for parents, the new program could relieve some of the stress that comes along with having a new teenage driver.

"[Louise] begged me to allow her to get her license, because she was dealing with many pressures from her peers,” Hunt said. “This bill will give parents the tool to say no [if they think their teens] are not ready.”

Welmerink said she’d like to see the proposed legislation in place when her youngest is ready to drive.

Some teens, she said, think the penalties for traffic violations are a joke.

“My son received a speeding ticket, and all he had to do was read me an article about scary car crashes,” Welmerink said. “I think he should have been fined—not excessively—and had his license suspended by the justice system for a short period of time.”

But new laws won’t cure part of the problem, Welmerink said. She said she feels the quality of driver’s education has steadily decreased, mainly because there is no behind-the-wheel training.

Some teens agree.

“I learned nothing in driver’s ed,” said one youth who took the class through the Washoe County’s Community Education program when he couldn’t get into a class at his high school. “We just watched movies.”

RN&R intern Chelsea Correia is a senior at Galena High School in Reno.