A higher age vowed for teen drivers
Lawmakers plan bill with 17 1/2 minimum
(Correction: Because of an editing error, some editions of yesterday's Page One story on attempts to raise the age for
teenage drivers incorrectly stated that Amanda Nadeau, 16, died March 17 after an alcohol-related crash. The crash was not
linked to alcohol.)
State legislative leaders, saying they were shaken by a spate of highway accidents, are vowing to dramatically toughen
state driving laws for teenagers by putting a bill on the governor's desk that would raise the age at which a teenager could
receive a license to 17 1/2, among the toughest standards for young drivers in the nation.
The bill, perennially debated and redrafted at the State House, appears to have finally garnered the support needed to
make it law, the leaders say, following an outcry from parents, police, and legislators, who say the current minimum age,
16 1/2, allows too many inexperienced and immature drivers onto state roadways.
The statistics are alarming, legislators say. According to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, three out of every 10 Massachusetts
drivers age 16 get into serious accidents. Yesterday, House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi said lawmakers are preparing to approve
the legislation, which is also backed by leading Senate lawmakers, by July 31.
''I believe the focus on this particular issue right now will generate a lot of support in the Legislature," DiMasi said.
''I would say by the end of this session we will have a bill on the governor's desk."
Even as they finished drafting the details of the bill last week, several legislators received telephone calls from Julia
Rodriguez, who buried her 16-year-old daughter, Amanda Nadeau, last Wednesday.
A junior at Reading Memorial High School, Nadeau was killed when the BMW in which she was riding hit a tree on Route 128
in Wakefield on March 17. The driver, 16-year-old Scott Connolly of Reading, was also killed in the crash.
''There's no way some of these kids should be driving," Rodriguez said. ''They turn 16 and think they have the right to
drive. But we can tell them no."
Critics of raising the age limit have said it would be more effective for the state to improve enforcement of existing
''Raising the driving age is not something we support," said Arthur Kinsman, director of government affairs for AAA of
Southern New England. ''I have never seen any studies that indicate raising the age to 17 1/2 is really going to accomplish
anything other than delay onset of the necessary experience."
Lawmakers, not to mention parents, say that if the bill passes, they anticipate complaints from teens, who consider driving
at age 16 a rite of passage.
''I don't actually think it's very fair to make us wait until we're older," said Erica Morris, 17, from Sandwich, who does
not yet have a license. ''I agree that some of the kids can be a little reckless when they're driving, but I think it's an
excuse to just get younger drivers off the road."
Current law allows a teenager to receive a learner's permit at age 16 and a junior operator's license at 16 1/2. Drivers
with learner's permits must be accompanied by a driver 21 or older with a full license. Junior operators, those under 18,
are subject to enhanced penalties for some vehicle offenses, such as speeding and drinking while driving. The proposal would
raise the minimum age requirement by a year, as well as double the duration of learner's permits to one year and raise the
minimum age at which a teen could get a learner's permit by six months, to 16 1/2 years old.
The bill would also require teens with learner's permits to log 50 hours of driving under the supervision of a parent or
guardian, including 10 hours in the winter and 10 hours at night. The current requirement mandates 12 hours of supervised
''There's a maturity factor that needs to be addressed, and there's an experience factor that needs to be addressed," DiMasi
said. ''Especially when a teenager gets on the highway and there's speed involved, the first time they ever go above 55 miles
an hour, they're not sure what they're doing behind the wheel."
The bill would also impose harsher punishments if a driver with a junior operator's license is stopped for violating the
various restrictions that come with that license, such as driving after midnight or with passengers under age 16 who are unaccompanied
by an adult, during the first six months they have the license. Connolly was driving in violation of that rule.
Under the bill, violators would lose their junior operator's license and be forced to take intensive drivers education
courses to reobtain it. Under current law, violators face monthlong license suspensions that increase with violations.
''We want to put a short and tight leash on junior operators," said Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat,
author of the proposal, and cochairman of the Transportation Committee. ''They'll have additional on-road training and as
a result they'll be better prepared for the experience of driving."
The proposed age requirement of 17 1/2 proposed under the bill would be among the toughest in the nation; most states allow
teens to obtain a license at age 16.
Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat and cochairman of the Transportation Committee, said the committee would
likely take up the proposal by the middle of this week and send it to the full Legislature by week's end.
''I'm confident it will pass both branches and the governor will want to sign it," he said.
Teenage drivers suffer fatalities at the highest rate of any age group, federal data show. In 2004, the most recent year
for which statistics are available, 28.6 per 100,000 Americans age 16 to 20 died in motor vehicle crashes, according to the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. ''A lot of this has to do with maturity level of the driver," said Representative
Peter J. Koutoujian, a Newton Democrat. ''I remember when I drove at age 17. I drove too fast. I had no idea, no conception
of the weapon that I was operating."
Baddour recently met with teenagers who told him driver's education in Massachusetts is inadequate. Under the bill, he
said, teens would need to clear a statewide driver's education exam, rather than exams devised by driving schools.
''The kids told me driver's ed is a joke," Baddour said.
Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com, Raja Mishra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Globe correspondents Nathan A. Hurst and Katherine M. Curley contributed to this report.