The push for "Nick's Law" started with plenty of emotion and political muscle.
The death of Nick Bisignano offered a textbook example of the tragic mix of underage drinking and speeding. The 17-year-old son of a former state lawmaker--a friend of the governor's--was killed a few miles from Iowa's Statehouse in a crash that generated extensive media coverage.
It was a dramatic story some believed could be used to persuade parents and lawmakers to toughen teen driving restrictions.
But as the Iowa Legislature adjourned Thursday, Nick's Law remained undone, the latest illustration of how proposals to toughen teen driving laws often fail to gather political support, even as experts say the changes could save lives.
In Iowa, the law included more than a half-dozen proposed restrictions--from prohibiting cell phone use to new seat-belt rules--each of which brought out opponents.
Parents expressed concern that an 11 p.m. driving curfew would prevent their children from even having a pizza after a football game. Others worried that restrictions on the number of passengers would prevent carpooling to school.
"All of the arguments boiled down to convenience versus safety," said Kevin Techau, Iowa's public safety commissioner, who lobbied for the bill.
The inaction has left Nick's father angry that others were not moved to press for change following the death of his son, a defensive back and third baseman who was planning to play college football.
"If 100 teen deaths a year in this state is acceptable, then they can ignore the proposals," said Tony Bisignano, seated near a portrait of his son that hangs above his home's fireplace. "But someone else is going to be in that 100 next year."
Responding to tragedy
Last year, lawmakers in nine states introduced bills to restrict nighttime teen driving hours, for example, but only one state passed such a law, according to the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a lobbying group.
The effort behind Nick's Law started last fall over lunch between Bisignano and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat. "He said he wanted to put a face on this," Bisignano recalled.
In January, Vilsack prominently mentioned Nick during his State of the State address, as he called for added limits on teen drivers.
As proposed, Nick's Law would have prohibited people younger than 18 from driving after 11 p.m. and from talking on cell phones while at the wheel. It also would have boosted requirements for driver training, enhanced seat-belt rules, increased penalties for providing teens alcohol, required beer keg registration and limited teens to one non-family passenger.
In retrospect, the bill's backers say, it tried to do too much too fast, triggering a collapse under its own weight as numerous interests found something they did not like.
"It was just too heavy," said state Sen. Matt McCoy, the Democratic co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. "There were too many elements that were controversial."
The beer lobby worked behind the scenes to defeat the keg registration, even distributing a memo to key lawmakers with speaking points for opposition.
Traditional tensions over home schooling proved to be the fatal blow after a lawmaker attached a controversial amendment that would have allowed parents to provide their own driver instruction, just as they do with reading and math.
"I knew that was a poison pill that was not going to work," said state Rep. David Tjepkes, the Republican floor manager for the bill in the House.
Some lawmakers also felt many of the proposals were largely unenforceable and matters best left to parents.
"There wasn't any one thing, but just a bunch of little things," said state Rep. Jim Lykam, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.
The governor's office said the issue did not generate much correspondence, but there were some letters in opposition.
"The majority of teens are good drivers who do not drink," wrote one parent. "These tragedy laws end up making life harder for the majority of teens and parents while not preventing the next tragedy."
Even Tjepkes was skeptical that all the provisions were needed, or that they would have saved Nick's life.
"The simple facts were that he tested twice over the legal limit and was traveling about 90 m.p.h. on a city street," Tjepkes said. "Those are very clearly already addressed in existing law."
Nick's crash, two days after Christmas 2004, included most of the top risk factors for teen driving deaths: underage drinking, excessive speed, late-night cruising and potential distraction from a passenger.
Those factors and others contribute to making crashes the leading cause of death for American teens, resulting in 5,000 to 6,000 lost lives a year.
Studies and experience have shown that states can reduce those risk factors by tightening restrictions on teen drivers.
Night of fun turns deadly
The statistics were foreign to Tony Bisignano when he agreed to Nick's request to stay overnight at a friend's home. With those parents away, Nick played a drinking game with friends, downing three or four glasses of rum and Coke.
Earlier in the evening, Gino Pane had bought a 1.75-liter bottle of Captain Morgan for the teens, pocketing the change and later telling police he "did it for the money," according to court records. Pane, then 37, would later be sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to providing alcohol to minors.
After about an hour of drinking, Nick got into his Buick with an acquaintance to get some beer. Several partygoers later told police his speech was slurred as he was leaving.
Tony Bisignano believes his son was not yet feeling the full effect of the alcohol when he left. His blood-alcohol level later showed 0.204, more than double the legal limit for an adult.
Just before 1 a.m., Nick and his passenger, Corey Wheeler, came over the top of a hill in a residential side street at roughly 90 m.p.h. After swerving into a small brick retaining wall and knocking down two utility poles, the car flipped over.
Wheeler, also 17, survived, although he had multiple broken bones. Nick, who suffered massive head trauma, died before help arrived. He was buried a few days later in his No. 9 football jersey.
Tony Bisignano knew his son sometimes drank. But he had taken a stern hand, even predicting the future by talking about how terrible it would be to have police show up in the middle of the night to tell him his son was dead.
Before his death, Nick had only recently completed a nearly three-month grounding, after he damaged a wheel on his car following a night of drinking with cousins in a hotel room.
"He talked a good story and said he had learned a lesson," Bisignano said. "But when you let them out of the house, you don't know what they're doing."
Lawmakers to try again
Iowa lawmakers and administration officials promise to revive the effort next year. It would be the first major revision to Iowa's graduated driver's license system since it was first enacted in 1999. The system, common in most states, provides added freedom as teen drivers gain experience.
"We felt that having every law-enforcement group in the state solidly behind this and having the governor behind it, we thought it would have better chances," said Techau, the public safety commissioner. "It's not a partisan issue, but it did get caught up in partisan politics."
Bisignano, meanwhile, no longer wants his son's name associated with the failed effort. He suspects some Republicans dragged their feet because they did not want Vilsack, who is considering a 2008 presidential bid, to be able to show victory on a high-profile issue.
After carrying his friend's casket, Nick Cash believes tougher laws are needed.
"It's inconvenient and it's not cool, but it would put drivers in a safer situation," said Cash, a senior at Nick's high school in Des Moines. "If these are the reasons kids are dying, to not to do something about it is irresponsible."
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