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 role

Blagojevich 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.