By Rose Hoban
It seemed like a good idea: Teens, who are restricted from driving after dark under North Carolina’s graduated driver’s license system would be able to drive to and from evening classes under a bill proposed by Charlotte Sen. Dan Bishop (R).
Then, during a meeting of a senate judiciary committee, Bishop entertained a so-called “friendly amendment” from Democrat Paul Lowe (Forsyth) that would allow teens to also drive solo to and from church functions after 9 p.m., when they’re currently restricted.
Lowe, who is a pastor outside his position at the General Assembly, said he wanted to write the amendment only to allow for attendance at a worship service.
But as the committee began to pull the language apart, it became clear that a seemingly simple idea could become complicated.
“The purpose of graduated licenses is to give young drivers the experience they need to be safe on the roads,” said Sen. Terry Van Duyn (D-Asheville).
“My question is that there are social events that are church or religious-sponsored and those are good things. I’m not questioning that, but does this allow inexperienced drivers, maybe with their friends in the car, to attend those social events.”
Under North Carolina’s graduated drivers license system, a teen with a learner’s permit can only drive during daylight hours with a supervising driver for the first six months, then graduates to driving at any time with an older driver. Once the teen has earned a license, he or she can drive unsupervised during daylight hours for six months and can have only one other passenger under the age of 21 in the car.
Teens can only drive after dark to go to or from work or volunteer service.
The law was created in 1997, and was one of the first graduated license programs in the country. Steve Marshall from the Injury Prevention Research Center at UNC Chapel Hill said there’s an “enormous” body of scientific evidence that favors strong graduated driver’s license systems.
“You do a lot of things when you’re driving, that you’re almost not aware of,” he said. “You read brake lights way ahead, like four, five, six cars ahead, you look for oncoming traffic when you’re at an intersection. Youth drivers don’t do those things.”
Researchers at Marshall’s center and at the Highway Safety Research Center, also at UNC, have put cameras in cars to see how young people behave as they’re driving.
“People forget about [the camera] within a couple of days. They do all the regular things people do in a car, you know, like picking their noses,” he said.
More important, Marshall said the cameras show how long it takes teens to acquire driving skill.
“Stronger graduated driver’s license laws are always better,” he said. “It is more inconvenient for families sometimes, but there is a payoff.”
He said that the evidence shows the graduated license regimens reduce teen fatalities by as much as 50 percent.
“There have been concerns raised that [allowing for attendance at religious events] opens up the law to weaken it to a degree that you might want to consider before you make this decision,” said Alan Dellapena from the state Division of Public Health during the meeting. “Restricting that driver to the defined hours and the number of passengers is really the intent of the law.”
Dellapena, who chairs the unintentional death committee of the Child Fatality Task Force, said many activities could fall under the category of religious events.
Freshman senator Danny Earle Britt (R-Lumberton) said he could see that trying to define what constitutes a “religious event” could start to run afoul of the Constitution.
“Some religious practices I don’t believe in, but according to the Constitution people may have a right to practice those religions,” he said. “The more we open this up the more we get away from the intent of having the provisional licenses in the first place.”
He also said that as a prosecutor and then as a criminal defense attorney, he’s seen how these cases quickly get thrown out if they make it to court.
“Unless it was after midnight, they just get dismissed,” he said. “With these exceptions, it opens it up and makes it difficult to prosecute.”
In the end, Bishop withdrew support for Lowe’s amendment, and signaled he might even forget about the bill altogether.
“This bill was because a constituent had a child who was in a high school class that extends to after dark,” he said. “It’s an unusual situation.”
Bishop recounted being the youngest of five children, all of whom had a car wreck in the first couple years of driving, “Some of us pretty significant.”
“I had one when I was about 17-and-a-half and I had kids in the car and I was driving to the beach,”he said.
“I think we ought to be absolutely comfortable that we’re not worsening the situation or undoing something that’s valuable.”