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Thu, June 20

Do teens need more time to learn how to drive?

<b><a href="" target="_blank">Click to enlarge chart</a></b> | WNI Infographic

<b><a href="" target="_blank">Click to enlarge chart</a></b> | WNI Infographic

PHOENIX - State lawmakers are weighing whether teens should be able to get behind the wheel the moment they turn 15.

But they'd still have to wait until they're 16 to be out there on their own.

House Bill 2080 would amend existing law that allows teens to get a learner's permit once they turn 15 1/2. Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said she thinks the extra six months will lead to safer drivers.

"It will give the person a full 12 months, from 15 to 16, before they can be set loose with a driver's license,' she said.

But Townsend is running into a full-court press from several of the state's major insurance companies that already have lined up to kill the measure. It also is drawing opposition from the Arizona Chapter of the National Safety Council.

"They just feel that maturity levels are not sufficient for putting a 15-year-old on the road,' said lobbyist Janna Day of her organization's position.

Townsend sniffed at that contention.

"I don't think that much happens between 15 and 15 1/2 biologically,' she said.

"There's no spring that goes off that makes them better drivers,' Townsend continued. "I think what you need is a full 12 months.'

But Prescott High School parent JoAnne Chaffeur disagrees.

"It's scary enough that they are on the roads at 15 1/2," she said. "They just aren't mature enough, with too much activity distracting them, like texting." (See related article, this page.)

Under current law, teens need to pass only the written portion of the driving test to get a learner's permit. That entitles them to take a vehicle out on the highway if someone at least 21 years old who has a regular license is in the passenger seat.

It's a little different for motorcycles where there may not be a passenger seat. A learner's permit allows the teen to take the cycle out on city streets - but not on controlled access highways and not after sunset.

At 16 teens can apply for a driver's license. But even then restrictions remain until they turn 18, including a ban on driving between midnight and 5 a.m. without a parent present unless it's for something like going to work. And that new Class G license limits the new driver to a single passenger younger than 18.

Linda Gorman, spokeswoman for AAA Arizona, said those are all good restrictions. And she said her organization sees no reason to ease up on any of them, including the age to get a permit.

Gorman, whose organization also sells insurance, echoed the concerns about whether 15-year-olds are mature enough to operate a vehicle, even with an adult present.

In fact, she said AAA actually would like to tighten up restrictions.

She said Townsend is half right with her logic.

Gorman said it does make sense to have teens practice for a full year before getting a license, even one with restrictions. But she said AAA would want to delay the date for getting that full license to 16 1/2.

She conceded, though, the political chance of Arizona actually delaying teen licensure is probably nil.

Townsend, for her part, said the insurers are worrying needlessly. "It sounds fearsome to have it at 15 if you're an insurance agent,' she said. "But if you do look at the other states, they are just perfectly fine with that age."

As it turns out, Arizona actually is in the minority when it comes to forcing teens to wait a half year past their 15th birthday.

The Governor's Highway Safety Association says 23 states already allow a learner's permit to be issued at 15. In fact, nine states allow for even earlier supervised driving privileges, with six of them issuing permits at 14.

Townsend originally proposed to push her measure Tuesday at the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. But with the insurance industry lined up against it, she agreed to pull it from consideration to see if a deal can be worked out.

One option, Townsend said, would be to allow permits to be issued at 15, but only for teens who take driver training through an approved school. Teens who intend to be taught by a parent would still have to wait another six months.

That may be enough to blunt industry opposition, with Gorman calling that "an interesting compromise.'

But she said there would have to be some assurance of the quality of the professional training.

"Not all drivers' education is equal,' Gorman said. "There are some good approaches out there and there are some that are not as effective. So, it's the type of school you select.'

Chaffeur said this shouldn't even be on the political radar.

"The legislature needs to focus on taking care of issues like education's Current Year Funding and not something like this," she added.

The Daily Courier staff contributed to this article.

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