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Teenagers feeling sting of tougher driving laws

Email|Print| Text size + By Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / January 9, 2008

The number of license suspensions of drivers under 18 has soared over the past year because of a tough new law aimed at curbing bad driving habits by junior operators.

About 3,000 drivers age 16 and 17 had their license or learner's permit suspended between March 31, when the law took effect, and early December, according to data from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. About 1,700 junior operators lost their license or permit during the same period in 2006.

Fatal crashes with junior operators behind the wheel dropped from 27 in 2006 to 17 last year, according to preliminary year-end numbers from the Registry. The tally counts the number of accidents in which there was a fatality, but not how many people died or who was at fault.

While the drop in fatal accidents could be attributed to a number of factors, including weather, state officials are praising the new law in helping to curb dangerous driving by teenagers.

"It is exactly what we were hoping would happen," said Senator Steven A. Baddour, chairman of the Transportation Committee, who pushed the bill requiring tougher penalties. "We knew as soon as one kid got pinched, every kid in his school would know about it, and it would have an impact."

The new law also stiffened the punishment for many moving violations and required mandatory driver training after suspensions. Coming after several highly publicized fatalities involving young drivers in 2005 and 2006, the law was intended to protect inexperienced and often immature drivers.

Teenage drivers now face a suspension ranging from 90 days for a first-time speeding ticket to one year for a second or later offense. Fines and fees required to get the license back can cost up to $1,000.

The law also cracked down on other offenses, but about 2,000 of last year's teen suspensions involved at least speeding tickets.

The suspensions represent a dramatic increase in the penalties faced by young speeders. Previously, first-time speeders paid a fine that could be as low as $50. They were also permitted to keep their licenses.

While the law was welcomed by parents, teenagers with suspended licenses complained that the law was Draconian.

"It seems slightly overly strict to me," said Isaiah Switzer, 18, of Pittsfield, who lost his license for 90 days for driving 12 miles per hour over the speed limit. His parents had to take three days off from work to drive him to his college exams in Boston, a 2 1/2-hour trip. "It has been quite a problem at times," he said.

Another teenager who lost her license is feeling the brunt of the law.

"Even if I want to visit my friends for an hour, it is a big inconvenience," said Colleen Blanchard, 17, of Shrewsbury, who lost her license for 90 days after getting a ticket for going 46 in a 30-mile-per-hour zone. Now, she needs parents or friends to drive her to and from school and her friends' homes.

The number of teen suspensions could climb dramatically in the months ahead. Between March and December, about 5,400 speeding tickets were given to junior operators. Some tickets are still working through the system because they are mailed to drivers, who are given a chance to appeal, according to the Registry.

Besides speeding, which was the most common reason for suspension, junior operators also lost their license or permit for driving without an adult driver when they carried young passengers; driving during the nighttime curfew, which lasts from 12:30 to 5 a.m.; drag racing; reckless driving, and other reasons. Penalties for those offenses were increased, as well. Reckless driving, for example, carries a 180-day suspension for a junior operator.

Speeding tickets given to junior operators dropped about one-third from the previous year, when about 8,000 were handed out. While the reason has not been established through research, Registrar Anne L. Collins of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which tracks suspensions, speculated that the drop-off occurred because teenagers were worried about losing their license and changed their bad driving habits.

"Teens are getting the message and are curbing their behavior," Collins said.

Drivers are considered junior operators until their 18th birthday. For several years, they have faced restrictions that older drivers do not. For instance, for the first six months they have their junior operator license, they cannot drive with another person under the age of 18 in the car, except for a sibling, unless they are accompanied by a licensed driver who is 21 or older.

Teenagers can get a learner's permit at 16 and a junior operator's license at 16 1/2. Of the state's 4.7 million licensed drivers, about 62,000 are junior operators. Although they were a fraction of the drivers on the road, they were involved in 7 percent of fatal accidents last year and 10 percent the year before.

In past years, one-third of 16-year-old drivers and about one-fifth of 17-year-olds have been in serious accidents, according to Registry data.

The number of fatal accidents on state roads declined only slightly, from 441 to 429, between 2006 and 2007, according to the Registry.

The law was passed after a long battle, following several deaths of teenage drivers and passengers. In 2005 and 2006, teenage sisters died in Southborough; two Reading 16-year-olds died in Wakefield; and a 17-year-old girl from Hopkinton and her 10-year-old brother died in another crash.

Besides losing their license and paying fines, junior operators caught speeding are required to take two courses, a Driver Attitudinal Retraining Course that emphasizes taking responsibility for one's own behavior, and the State Courts Against Road Rage, taught by a state trooper.

At a recent SCARR class at the Millbury State Police barracks, about 25 teenagers, including nine girls, watched videos of car crashes. The teenagers sat in stunned silence as they saw torn and bloodied bodies.

Sergeant Richard Eubanks, who developed the course about eight years ago, alternately barked at and cajoled the students.

"We take driving for granted," he said. "But there are big responsibilities with that little piece of plastic. . . . The stupid things you do now can affect you for the rest of your life."

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com.


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