New driving rules will ask more of both teens and their parents
Teens learning to drive will be spending a lot more time with their parents under the provisions of a new law signed by Gov. Mitt Romney on Jan. 3.
The legislation requires parents to spend 40 hours in the car supervising their teens' driving, increases the number of required driving instruction hours to 18, and mandates first-offense suspensions and tougher penalties for reckless driving and other violations.
The teenage driving bill was one of 35 bills signed into law by Governor Romney the day before he left office. The driving penalties of the new law take effect March 31, and the new driver's education requirements on Sept. 1.
Under the current law, teens can get a learner's permit at age 16, then a junior operator's license (JOL) at 16 and a half, and a full license at 18. Although the driving age remains the same, the new teen driving law demands greater involvement and responsibility from parents and guardians.
Among its provisions, a driver with a learner's permit must spend 40 hours of driving supervised by a parent or other licensed adult driver in the car, compared to the current 12, to qualify for a junior operator's license. Parents will be required to sign a legal document certifying the number of hours they supervised. The 40-hour requirement drops to 30 if a teen driver passes an advanced driver's education course that includes defensive driving techniques.
In addition to the education provisions, the new law puts a bigger bite into penalties for teenagers who commit driving offenses. For example, for a first-offense speeding violation, drivers under age 18 will face a 90-day license suspension, a reinstatement fee of $500, and a road rage program, in addition to the current penalty of paying fines.
A first-offense drag racing violation carries a penalty of a one-year license suspension, a $250 fine, and a $500 license reinstatement fee, compared to the current penalty of a $100 to $500 fine, plus a 30-day license suspension.
The new law also increases the suspension of licenses for first-offense junior operators caught driving with other passengers in the car during the first six months of licensure to 60 days instead of 30. First-offense permit-holders and junior operators caught driving between 12 to 5 am unaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian will lose their licenses for two months.
New demands on parents
As one of the officers who conducts driving tests at the Martha's Vineyard Registry of Motor Vehicles in Edgartown, Massachusetts State Police Sergeant Neal Maciel works closely with teenage drivers and their parents year-round.
In talking about the new law a few days before it was signed, Sergeant Maciel said he was sympathetic about the added burden the increased number of supervised driving hours would place on parents. However, he pointed out, "The ultimate responsibility is with the parent. You can send kids off to driver's training, but the parents are the ones that are signing the form saying they're giving their consent for their child to get a license at that age."
In addition to requiring parents and guardians to spend more time in the car with their teens, the new law stipulates they must participate in at least two hours of instruction on the content of driver's education curriculum.
Sergeant Maciel saw this as a plus. "You'd be surprised how many parents don't know the details of the junior operator's permit law and general information about parental consent," he said.
The state Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) will determine the specifics of fulfilling the parent education requirement, which may take the form of reviewing take-home materials rather than attending classes. Parents of more than one teen get a break, however, with an exemption from having to receive the instruction more than once every five years.
The new law also requires 18 hours of on-road instruction in driver's education programs, doubling the number spent behind the wheel from 6 to 12 hours, plus 6 hours observing another student driver.
"A basic driver's ed course is a good starting point, but I think there needs to be more available for people just starting to drive," Sergeant Maciel said. "It is something that definitely needs to be looked at, and I'm glad the new bill has provisions for that."
Changes for Island teens
On Martha's Vineyard, the only driver's education program for teens is available at Vineyard Auto School, owned and operated by Joe and Natalie Thibodeau for almost 12 years. The Thibodeaus pay rent to hold classes for their $425 10-week program at Edgartown School, where Mr. Thibodeau is a teacher.
Without knowing yet exactly what changes the new law will require in their program, Mr. Thibodeau said, "Anything that would encourage more education and more practice, and make driving safer for teens, I would support."
He also has offered his support and help to Tom and Barbara Furino in their efforts to promote and provide better driver's education for Island teenagers through an organization they founded, MV Drive for Life. The Furinos started the organization in memory of their son David, who, with his best friend Kevin Johnson, both regional high school students, died in a car accident a few years ago.
When it comes to remedying serious deficits in driver's education, Mr. Furino said he would describe the new law as "a Band-Aid on a gaping wound." Last month, he and his wife hosted a kick-off meeting for the MV Drive for Life program at the regional high school. The evening provided an introduction for teens and their parents to Skidz School, an advanced driver's course that includes defensive driving techniques offered by the National Safety Council's Central Massachusetts Chapter in West Boylston.
Through arrangements made by MV Drive for Life, up to 200 high school students will have the opportunity to attend Skidz School for $50 next spring, including the cost of bus transportation to and from West Boylston. Under the new law, attending a course such as Skidz School will knock 10 hours off the required parent-supervised driving hours.
"Something like the Skidz School that is available for students to go to in the springtime, that is a great, great opportunity, and something that everybody in that age group should take advantage of," Sergeant Maciel said. Spaces remain available, and anyone interested should call the Furinos at 508-627-5758.
In addition, MV Drive for Life advocates putting driver's education back into all high schools in Massachusetts. The kick-off program also featured a presentation about driving simulators, a key component in the technologically advanced driver's education that the organization promotes.
"Education is the key," Mr. Furino said. "What we need is the kids taking a course, doing this every day in the high school, not just hands-on driving, but also education with simulators."
Principal Peg Regan has made a room available at the high school where a driving simulator can be set up for demonstration. The Furinos arranged to lease a simulator from Virtual Driver Interactive in Atlanta, Ga., which should arrive at the school sometime in the next few weeks. MV Drive for Life will be seeking donations to raise funds to lease five to seven simulators for the high school
"Simulators can give kids ten times more experiences than any instructor can," Mr. Furino pointed out. "You can't just take the kids out on the highway and put them through all the situations that a simulator does, under different conditions such as thunderstorms, rain, fog, and snow."
Sergeant Maciel, who attended the MV Drive for Life kick-off and recently joined its board, also endorses simulator training. "The virtual computer program looks good. If they could ever incorporate that into the school system, that would be the best thing that could happen," he said. "Then you're not putting teens behind the wheel out on the road to get that experience. They're getting some real time road experience safely behind a desk, without any risk."
How the bill evolved
Rep. Bradford Hill (R-Ipswich) proposed the original teen driving bill about three years ago. Last summer the house and senate passed separate versions of the bill, which then went to a conference committee to iron out the differences. Some of the provisions dropped along the way included raising the age at which a teen could get a license to 17 and a half, banning drivers under 18 from using cell phones, and requiring anyone registering a car in Massachusetts to present a driver's license, which some lawmakers protested was beyond the scope of teen driving legislation.
The new law also establishes two commissions. One will study the benefits and detriments of a decal program for vehicles driven by teens with learner's permits or JOLs. The second commission will study the symptoms and effects of sleep deprivation on drivers of all ages and the impact on highway safety.