Bob Beaudette didn’t think much about teen driving laws until June 13. That was the day his 16-year-old niece was badly hurt when the car full of teenagers she was riding in crashed near Flagstaff. She died nine days later.
Since then Beaudette has been a dogged advocate for tougher limits on newly licensed teen drivers.
Arizona is one of five states that do not put any restrictions on when new teen drivers can be on the road, or how many other kids they can carry as passengers. Studies in other states show those limits have reduced the overall crash rates, and the fatal crash rates, of young teen drivers. Most studies put the reductions in the 20 percent to 25 percent range.
Yet there has been virtually no interest at the Arizona Legislature in passing laws that would set limits on teen drivers. Two bills on the subject died in the last legislative session when the chairman of the House Transportation Com- mittee, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, refused to bring them up for a hearing.
Beaudette is determined to change that.
After the death of his niece, Hannah Tesch, Beaudette began researching the issue and speaking at schools about the risks new drivers face. He also contacted legislators from his Scottsdale-area district, urging them to press for a new law that, he believes, would have saved Hannah’s life.
“I came away with the idea that this really did not need to happen,” Beaudette said of Hannah’s death. “This law would have been ideal for this particular situation and she would be alive today if Arizona had passed this law. There’s no question about it.”
Sen. Barbara Leff, R-Paradise Valley, says she will take up the cause when the Legislature convenes in January. Leff said she will team up with Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, to co-sponsor a bill that would prohibit newly licensed teens from driving between midnight and 5 a.m., or from carrying more than one teenage passenger any time without adult supervision. The bill will have exceptions, such as allowing teen drivers on the roads after midnight if they are going directly to or from work, or a religious or school event. The passenger restriction also will allow teens to drive with more than one family member in the car.
Gould, who will chair the Senate Transportation Committee next session, and Leff say they are confident they can get the bill out of the Senate. Getting it through the House, where Biggs will again have the power to block it as transportation chairman, will be a tougher fight, they say.
Biggs would not agree to an interview or say whether he would block the teen driving bill if it reaches his committee.
Car crashes are by far the leading cause of death among 16 and 17 year olds, accounting for about 40 percent of the fatalities in that age group both nationally and in Arizona, according to federal statistics. The deadliest drivers on the road are 16-year-olds, whose crash rates are almost nine times as high as the overall crash rate of all drivers, according to a new policy statement on teen drivers issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
A 16-year-old boy was driving the car in which Hannah Tesch was mortally injured.
The Tribune reported in a three-part series published in May that restrictions in other states have dramatically cut traffic death rates among teen drivers.
The idea behind the laws, known as graduated driver’s licensing, is to prevent newly licensed teens from driving in the most dangerous conditions: at night when visibility is poor or with other teens who are likely to create distractions, or prod the driver into risky behavior such as speeding.
Most states have limits on night driving and passengers for the first six months to a year for new drivers less than 18 years old.
Opponents in Arizona argue that it is the parents’ job, not the government’s, to set driving rules for children. That notion has long stifled any meaningful attempt to set limits here, said Linda Gorman, spokeswoman for AAA Arizona, the private insurance group that has taken the lead in lobbying for graduated licensing bills.
The prospects of the bill are still murky, Gorman said. The prime backer of a graduated licensing bill in the last session, Rep. Collette Rosati, R-Scottsdale, failed in her attempt to unseat Sen. Carolyn Allen, RScottsdale, a longtime opponent of the legislation.
Allen refused to comment on whether she would support a graduated licensing law in the upcoming session.
Biggs also will return as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, with the power to block any bill before it gets a hearing.
But this year advocates of the law have the strong backing of several public health groups and hard data from recent studies showing both the need and public support for a stronger graduated licensing law, Gorman said.
AAA released a study this month showing more than 80 percent of Arizonans surveyed support a night-driving restriction for 16-year-olds. The same poll showed 64 percent back limits on passengers for new drivers. The levels of support were consistent across ethnic and political lines, and among urban and rural residents.
In November, the national Emergency Nurses Association ranked Arizona the worst state in the nation in terms of overall traffic safety laws, in large part because it does not have an effective graduated licensing system.
Arizona also is the only stated rated as “poor” in the assessment of graduated licensing laws across the country by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The most significant change in the prospects for the bill next session may be its sponsors. Gould is replacing Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, a longtime opponent of graduated licensing laws, as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. Both Gould and Leff also are Republicans who tend to preach smaller government, the same wing of the Legislature where most of the opposition comes from.
“It’s not ideologically driven,” Gould said, adding most advocates of limited government concede there need to be laws to protect children and the public’s safety. “Not only do we need to protect children, these kids crash into other people. They are endangering the lives of other people.”
Leff, one of the lawmakers Beaudette pressed to take up the issue, said she is confident there are enough votes to pass the bill in both the House and Senate, if it can get past Biggs’ committee.
Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, backs new limits on teen drivers, particularly the passenger restriction, said legislative liaison Mike Haener.
“The governor is certainly interested in doing it,” Haener said. “It will be a priority to attempt to get it done this session.”