Special Report: The politics of public safety - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Special Report: The politics of public safety

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Posted: Tuesday, May 9, 2006 5:46 am | Updated: 2:56 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Part 3 of a 3-Day Series

Limits on young drivers are saving lives in other states. But not in Arizona. Here, they do not even warrant a hearing.

At least that’s the view of Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert.

As chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Biggs used his power to block the two bills this year that would have limited when young teenagers can drive and who they can carry as passengers. Biggs refused to hear either bill in his committee, which killed them both.

That leaves Arizona as one of five states that do not put special limits on new drivers younger than 18 through laws known as graduated driver’s licensing.

The bills’ main sponsors, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, say they received no explanation from Biggs and no help from Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano.

Biggs said in an interview with the Tribune that he is not convinced the laws passed in 45 other states make young drivers safer. Biggs says he has not analyzed the dozens of studies from those states.

Most of those studies show reductions averaging about 25 percent in the rates at which children of driving age get into car crashes, particularly fatal crashes.

While the figures have been spouted by advocates of restrictions on new drivers, Biggs says he is skeptical. As to his own opposition to the bills, Biggs cites the same philosophy that has long been the death knell for graduated licensing in Arizona.

“At some point you have to say that parents need to take responsibility for their children,” Biggs said. “I’m not inclined to believe that children are going to be any more responsive at that age to an amorphous law than they are to their own parents, who are close at hand and can give immediate discipline. If the parents would accept that responsibility, they would be the best ones to define and set those parameters.”

In any case, the past failure of bills to impose the limits here shows there is little interest among lawmakers, he says.

Rep. Colette Rosati, R-Scottsdale, usually sides with those who believe in limiting the intrusiveness of government in people’s lives. But the sponsor of one of the graduated licensing bills that died this year says putting limits on teenage drivers is a public safety issue, not just a parental rights issue.

“I like to remind people that the limited government idea applies to adults,” Rosati said. “When you are 16, you’re not an adult yet.”

Rosati has tried unsuccessfully for several years to pass a graduated licensing system similar to the one recommended by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Past failures prompted her to propose what she considers minimal restrictions on young drivers this session. Her bill would have prohibited newly licensed teens from driving unsupervised between midnight and 5 a.m.

Even that has been shown to reduce accidents involving teen drivers in other states, Rosati says. Most cities already have curfews on 16- and 17-year-olds, so it did not seem to be much of a burden to ban kids from driving during the hours they are already supposed to be at home, she said.

Rosati admits the bill she introduced this year is weak.

“You have to take what you can get and we can’t even get that,” she said.

Rep. Martha Garcia, DPhoenix, sponsored a more restrictive bill, which also was blocked by Biggs.

'POOR POLICY'

Technically, Arizona has a graduated licensing law. However, it places so few requirements on young drivers that this is the only state to receive a “poor” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent research organization that advocates passage of more complete laws and rates states based on the restrictions they impose. In the 1970s, NHTSA recommended states set up a three-tiered system of issuing licenses to new drivers. The first stage is a learner’s permit, which requires adult supervision for new drivers. Arizona law does require new drivers younger than 18 hold a learner’s permit for five months and complete at least 25 hours of supervised driving.

The second stage is where Arizona’s law falls short of the national model. Most states put limits on new drivers during the intermediate stage. The National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances recommends prohibiting those with intermediate licenses from driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., unless accompanied by a licensed adult at least 21 years old. It also recommends new drivers not be allowed to transport passengers younger than 20 at any time of day unless they are supervised by an older driver.

Arizona does not have either restriction.

The final stage of the model law is an unrestricted license at 18, as long as the driver has no citations for at least six months.

While there is ample scientific evidence showing graduated licensing saves young lives, the decisions behind the laws ultimately are political, says David Cowley, public affairs manager for AAA Arizona. The national auto club has been the chief advocate for passage of the laws, both in Arizona and throughout the United States.

More kids get into car crashes during the day than at night. But they have more reason to be on the road in the day, driving to school activities and jobs, Cowley says. So the laws are written to balance the legitimate reasons for young drivers to be on the road against the disproportionate risk they pose to themselves and others, he said.

“By limiting a time when there aren’t as many of them out there anyway, it doesn’t impact society as greatly,” Cowley said of nightdriving bans. “When we’ve got this whole population that just stands out as a high risk, why wouldn’t we want to take some reasonable steps to reduce that if we can? To me, it’s a no-brainer.”

There was a surge of states passing graduated licensing laws through the late 1990s.

Subsequent studies consistently showed reductions in total crashes, injury crashes and fatal crashes as a result.

In 1998, there were proposals in Arizona to put limits on new teenage drivers. Those bills failed.

A year later, Arizona passed its version of graduated licensing.

The 1999 law created an intermediate license for 16- and 17-year-old drivers. That law enhanced penalties for traffic violations and imposed some additional training requirements. It did not limit when young teenagers could drive or how many people they could have in their cars.

“Saying we have graduated driver’s licensing is pretty euphemistic,” Cowley said.

“We passed the punishment part. But we didn’t do anything to actually save lives or give them a chance to gain experience. So calling it a graduated driver’s license is really a stretch.”

The Legislature has shown little interest in hearing new proposals related to graduated licensing since 1999.

Two years ago, Rosati introduced a bill that would have set a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. driving curfew on 16- and 17-year-olds, and banned kids from carrying more than one passenger younger than 18.

Both provisions included an exemption if the teenage driver was accompanied by a licensed driver who was at least 25. The passenger limit exempted family members.

Rosati said she encountered stiff opposition, mostly from conservative and rural lawmakers.

During the 2004 legislative session the bill was weakened by amendments that stripped out the night-driving and passenger limits. Even then, the bill failed.

Sen. Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale, who represents the same district as Rosati, is among those who have long opposed restrictions on 16- and 17-year-old drivers, including the 2004 version and the proposals this year.

Allen said she might be willing to consider a passenger limit now, but is not inclined to prohibit teens from driving at night. It is up to parents to set the hours their kids can be on the road, she said.

“It’s kind of the libertarian in me,” Allen said. “Is it the obligation of government to tell everybody everything? What happened to parental control?”

ROADBLOCK

With the failure of her bill two years ago, Rosati said she hoped to get minimal restrictions passed this year with the intent of building on them in the future. That is a strategy some supporters of graduated licensing disagree with. Cowley of AAA says it was probably a mistake for the organization to go along with passage of a weak bill in 1999. Since then, lawmakers have declared they addressed the problem of teen drivers and have not been inclined to take further action he says. AAA did support Rosati’s bill this year.

Garcia, the Democratic lawmaker, says it is as bad to pass a weak law as no law. This year she introduced a proposal that includes all of the components of the model pitched by AAA and other traffic safety advocates, including limits on night driving and passengers.

Garcia’s bill met the same fate as Rosati’s, blocked when Biggs would not bring it up for a hearing in the Transportation Committee.

Both Rosati and Garcia say they have received no help from the governor’s office.

Napolitano acknowledged that she has not pushed lawmakers to adopt a graduated licensing bill.

“I’m generally supportive,” Napolitano said. “But have we been directly impactful on a particular piece of legislation? Not to date. One of the practical problems is, at the Legislature, there’s a fairly large number of legislators who have no interest in the issue because they view it as a matter of personal responsibility as opposed to more of a public health matter.”

Napolitano says she wants to research the laws in other states to determine which components are the most effective in reducing fatal crashes among teenagers. If the restrictions work, Napolitano said she would likely press for a more effective graduated licensing bill next year.

BUCKING THE TREND

Arizona is bucking the national trend by maintaining a weak law, said Melissa Savage, policy analyst for transportation at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan group that aids lawmakers and tracks laws in the states.

The trend among the states that already have those limits is to strengthen their laws, Savage says. States that have only a night-driving restriction are pushing to limit passengers, she said. Lawmakers in some states also are debating whether to extend the hours of the driving curfews, or to tighten exemptions to passenger bans, she said.

In March, Kentucky lawmakers passed night-driving and passenger restrictions on new drivers.

No state has scaled back the limits already placed on teenage drivers, Savage said.

The opposition in other states followed the same patterns that have blocked the bill in Arizona. The most prevalent argument against the laws is that restricting young drivers is the parents’ job, not the government’s, Savage says.

Cowley says while that notion is strong in Arizona, it is misguided when applied to driving.

“It’s not a parent’s decision,” Cowley said. “You’ve got the public safety to be considered. If I wasn’t on the road with your kid, I wouldn’t care. But you are making the decision for me, forcing me to drive with a high-risk driver.”

Teenagers interviewed by the Tribune say they realize how dangerous drivers their age are. All of them said risky behaviors such as speeding are common among their peers.

Yet despite the risks, most say they don’t like the idea of restricting when they can drive and who can be in their cars.

“That would kind of suck, but it would be safer,” said Blake Lea, 16, a junior at Mountain View High School in Mesa.

Samuel Judd, a 15-year-old sophomore at Red Mountain High School in Mesa, said limiting night driving and passengers would punish all young drivers for the actions of a relatively few reckless ones, who would probably break the law anyway.

CHOICES

Though the Legislature does not seem inclined to put stricter limits on young drivers, there are other options that advocates say can make them safer. There are curfews in every East Valley city and unincorporated areas of Maricopa County that require 16- and 17-year-olds to be home between midnight and 5 a.m. However, police say those curfews are tough to enforce, and violations do not carry any driving consequences.

After their 15-year-old daughter, Krystal Ebel, was killed in a car crash in 2004, Denny and Donna Ebel led the drive to get the Mesa Unified School District to prevent students from leaving high school campuses during lunch. In Mesa schools, only seniors are allowed to leave at lunch and return at most campuses.

Other East Valley schools have similar policies.

The Ebels say that regardless of whether the Legislature passes tougher restrictions, parents need to recognize the dangers that their kids face when they begin driving and set their own rules. They also need to understand that even good kids who are good drivers can die in a car crash, and that other parents may not impose the same limits.

Still, it is frustrating that Arizona lawmakers have so little interest in passing laws that have proved to cut fatalities among teenage drivers in other states, Denny Ebel says.

“You can make your choice,” he said. “You can leave it in your own hands and hope you make the right choices. And there are plenty of other people out there who, if you leave it in their hands, are not going to do a damned thing about it. And your kid might be dead someday because we didn’t do anything about it.”

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