A sweeping overhaul of Illinois' rules of the road for teen drivers was signed into law Monday, setting stringent licensing requirements with the promise of saving lives.
When the bill signed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich takes effect Jan. 1, it will give parents a stronger role in teaching teens to drive by tripling the learner's permit period and will target risk factors blamed for crashes that kill 5,000 to 6,000 teens a year.
Kathy Seeber of Gurnee is ready for the challenge.
"We have decided as a family that if it's going to take longer for us to be comfortable with her driving skills," Seeber said of her daughter Kelsey, 16, "we will take longer."
Reducing teen crashes is at the heart of the expanded graduated driver's license bill Blagojevich signed in the muggy cafeteria at Jones College Prep in the South Loop. State Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and state Rep. John D'Amico (D-Chicago), sponsors of the legislation, credited the Tribune's Teens at the Wheel series, a yearlong examination of teen driving, with focusing lawmakers' attention on the problem.
Blagojevich and Cullerton also joked about making teens' lives tougher. They noted, however, that the added requirements, including a nine-month learner's permit period, lengthier passenger restrictions and extended night-driving limits for teens, would reduce automobile crashes, the No. 1 killer of teens.
"Driving is a new privilege for teenagers," Blagojevich said before signing the bill, which will take effect in stages on Jan. 1 and July 1. "It is also one that comes with a lot of responsibility. This is a privilege that can be a difference between life and death."
Parents to play bigger roleBlagojevich noted that the longer learner's permit period meant new drivers would spend important time learning to drive with their parents. "That makes perfect sense," the father of two said.
A Johns Hopkins University public health study released in July 2006 shows that states with far-reaching restrictions on teen drivers see about a 21 percent decline in fatal crashes involving 16-year-old drivers. And researchers say that as teens experience more adult-supervised driving, they become safer behind the wheel.
"It's a good thing," Rob Foss, director of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, said of the new emphasis on parents-as-teachers. "Virtually every parent is an infinitely better driver, in the early months, than their teen. They may not be perfect. None are, but they are highly knowledgeable quasi experts."
Improvements from toughened teen-driving laws typically are seen in two to three years, Foss said.
One of the keys is making sure parents are well-equipped to deal with the extended period of teaching their children to drive, said John Ulczycki, executive director of the National Safety Council's transportation safety group.
"Frankly, one of the reasons fatalities are so high is we've got kids driving because they didn't get enough experience behind the wheel," Ulczycki said. "But parents are really the ones that are going to make it happen."
Kelsey Seeber has a learner's permit and has dutifully logged her hours behind the wheel with her parents. But she and her friend, Brandon Smith, 16, also of Gurnee, said it was difficult trying to meet the state-required 50 hours of driving with a parent. Monday's signing will extend the minimum permit time to nine months, instead of the current three months, to reach that requirement.
"As much as people complain about it, I think it's important that people know how to drive," said Smith, who received his license in January. So far, he said, he remains "accident free."
"Grand Avenue was kind of terrifying," he admitted, recalling the early days of driving.
Aside from placing more driver-training responsibility on parents, the new legislation will require high schools to offer six hours of teacher-supervised street driving in driver-education starting July 1. Currently, high schools shave several hours of that street time by using simulators and driving ranges as substitutes.
That change could cost more than $20 million, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White said Monday.
White, a strong supporter of the new driving law, said he is prepared to ask the state legislature for the additional funding, adding that he is "cautiously optimistic" legislators will approve it.
Cullerton and D'Amico said the length of time given to impose the new teacher-supervised street-driving requirement would allow supporters to find the money.
Some say more can be doneSue Scheckel of Crystal Lake welcomed the law's tougher driver's education requirements and driving restrictions, but said more can be done to prosecute adults who condone teen drinking.
Her son, Scott, 16, died Feb. 19, 2006, when the car in which he was riding crashed. The teenage driver, who had been at a drinking party at a friend's home, also was killed.
Scheckel said that there's no substitute for greater parental involvement, and that parents must be greater educators and enforcers of safe driving practices.
Teenagers across the metro area generally responded favorably to the changes, although some had reservations.
"It's a great idea," said Jillian Kola, a senior at Rolling Meadows High School, who was walking with Joe Oelerich, a sophomore at Harper College, outside the Streets of Woodfield shopping center in Schaumburg Monday afternoon. "A lot of kids our age are pretty irresponsible."
At a picnic table across from a juice smoothie restaurant, Mitch Allen, a junior at Schaumburg High School, took a break from eating a burrito so he and his friend Josh Smith, a senior at Schaumburg, could talk about the legislation.
"Some of the teens do have trouble driving, because they haven't done enough," said Allen, adding he has a learner's permit but has been practicing driving for several years at his grandparents' home in the country. Still, "from a teenager's perspective, it kind of sucks," Allen added.
Miles north, outside Warren Township High School in Gurnee, Armando Rodriguez, 16, whose Aug. 2 birthday caused him to miss the driver's education cutoff during his sophomore year, said he worries that the laws will get even tougher by the time he enrolls.
"I hope it doesn't change to 100 [hours driving with parents]," said Rodriguez, a junior. "It's going to suck. I want to go on a road trip my senior year."
Another Warren junior, Victoria Muniz, 16, said she was a passenger in a car that was in an accident last year.
The driver, a teenage friend, was trying to turn left at an intersection when an oncoming vehicle hit their car, she said. No one was hurt, but she said she recognizes why people are concerned about teen-driver safety.
"It's not something to play around with. It's dangerous," said Muniz, who has a learner's permit.
White and other state policymakers said they would monitor the impact of the new measures and make needed changes. D'Amico, who in 2006 proposed raising the minimum age at which a driver can obtain a license to 18, did not rule out revisiting that proposal.
"We're going to have to wait and see," D'Amico said. "Who knows. That may be something we'll try again a few years from now."