House Bill 343, tightening up restrictions on teenage drivers, passed both state houses in December and was signed into law by Governor Taft Jan. 4.
Supported by local officials and county safety organizations, the new state law has changed teenager driving privileges into what is known as a graduated driver’s licensing program.
The new law says that teenagers can now obtain a temporary learner’s permit at age 15 and a half years old. The learner’s permit must remain in the vehicle at all times and the driver must be accompanied by a licensed operator who is either a parent or a legal guardian (for ages 15 1/2 to 16). The total number of occupants cannot exceed the number of seat-belts in the vehicle, and driving times are restricted between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m.
From ages 16 to 17, teenagers can now receive what is known as a ‘probationary license.’ This second tier of the new law restricts driving between the hours of midnight to 6 a.m. and calls for no more than one non-family member to be a passenger.
The biggest change under House Bill 343 is that no one under the age of 18 may ever have more than one passenger in the vehicle until their 18th birthday.
Ohio State Representative Joseph Uecker (R-66th District), who supported and advocated the new law, was of the opinion that HB 343 was one of the most important bills of the 126th General Assembly because it will save lives.
Uecker, who sat on the House Public Transportation and Safety Committee that heard the bill when it was introduced, recalls the testimony of an emergency room physician from Cincinnati Children's Hospital who had done local and national statistical studies on the issues (injuries and deaths) of 16-year-old drivers.
"It was astounding," he recalls.
Martha Enriquez at Safe Communities, a county organization committed to reduce traffic crashes and fatalities, said that a teenager is killed in a car crash every 64.5 minutes and injured in a car crash every 55 seconds.
In Clermont County, there were 25 teens killed in a car crash in 2004. There were 28 fatalities in 2005 and 16 deaths last year, she said.
"The numbers are decreasing, but even one fatality is too many," she said. "Safe Communities supported this bill because one of our main goals is to reduce, and hopefully completely eliminate, traffic fatalities in Clermont County. This bill was one more way for us to help in that mission. We are thrilled that is has now been signed into law."
According to the research done by Safe Communities, teenagers make up 7 percent of all licensed drivers, but suffer 14 percent of fatalities and 20 percent of all reported accidents. The driver fatality rate for 16-year olds is nine times the rate for 30 to 60 years old.
"Teen drivers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors while driving, like speeding, following too close, or being distracted and not paying attention," said Enriquez. "Teen drivers killed in car crashes had a teenage passenger in the car 45 percent of the time."
Studies have shown that teens are more likely to speed and drive dangerously when other teens are in the car and are also more negligent in regard to wearing seat belts, Enriquez said.
"These new restrictions on teenage driving and the graduated licensing program was needed because teenage fatalities still remain a big problem," she said.
Representative Uecker, a retired police officer, said that he refused to be swayed by any opposition to the bill.
"The opponents feel that it will burden parents and be an inconvenience to those parents who will have to drive their children places," he said. "With all of my years investigating traffic accidents (and notifying parents of deaths), I believe that if we are truly interested in saving the lives of 16 year old children, then we need to either prohibit them from driving altogether and wait until they are 17 or heavily restrict the hours they drive and at the very least eliminate the distractions that cause accidents."
House Bill 343 hopes to accomplish that and more.