AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly every other week a young driver dies on Maine highways. Far more are injured. Secretary of State Charlie Summers says he will propose lawmakers consider several changes in the laws governing teen drivers in the wake of a national study by the Public Health Law Network finding the state can do more to reduce teen highway fatalities.
“When you do a comprehensive review of anything it’s something that takes a while,” he said. “It may not be something we can completely accomplish in the next session of the legislature.”
Summers said the statistics in the study are compelling. He said with 15- to 24-year-olds comprising just 12.5 percent of the licensed drivers, they are involved in 25 percent of fatalities and 30 percent of all injuries.
“What are we doing that we can do better?” he asked. “And what are we not doing that we should be doing?”
For example, Summers said, the study recommended the state bolster the driver training programs to include requiring more road time with instructors for new drivers. He said there should be an in-depth study of the current curriculum including looking at more online study before a driver gets behind a wheel with an instructor.
“That’s something that may take a while to study,” he said. Rep. Rich Cebra, R-Naples, the co-chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee agreed.
“I am glad that Secretary Summers is taking this on,” he said. “I think we should be looking at this whole area. We see in the paper all the time about one tragedy with a teen driver after another.”
Cebra says that many of the driving instructors in Maine are already doing a good job and he wants any study to include their comments on how to improve the courses. He said some of the proposals could be acted on in the session and he hopes Summers proposes some immediate changes as well as a study on the driving course curriculum.
“A lot of the distraction with a young driver comes when someone is riding with them,” he said. “I think lengthening the time before they can have passengers with them is something worth looking at.”
Maine currently bans nearly all riders with a new teen driver for the first 180 days that they have a license. The study suggests lengthening that to a year as a way to help the teen driver gain more experience before having to deal with the distraction of passengers.
Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, also serves on the Transportation Committee and is a former Secretary of State. He agreed the panel should look at what changes can be accomplished in the January session and which ones should be studied in depth.
“We have already banned teens using a cellphone or other device while driving to reduce distraction,” he said. “But, the statistics are so compelling with the teens hurt or killed while driving, we should look at what we can further do to address this.”
Diamond agreed the curriculum could be bolstered with more “behind-the-wheel” time for student drivers. He said the state also needs to maintain its enforcement efforts to keep teens from acquiring beer and other alcoholic beverages.
“That’s always an issue and we cannot let up on enforcement,” he said. “All the studies for years have shown drinking and teens don’t mix; that drinking and driving don’t mix.”
Diamond said he does have a concern with further limiting unsupervised nighttime driving. Maine currently allows teens to drive until midnight during their first year and the study suggests that should be changed.
“I could support a 10 p.m. curfew,” Summers said. “The statistics show that from 10 [p.m.] to midnight is a very dangerous time for teens to be driving.”
But Diamond said he would be reluctant to support an across-the-board change in the restriction. He said as a rural state there are a lot of teens that may be working after school in the evening and need to get home.
“Maybe we can look at an exemption for those working, so they can drive later,” he said.
Cebra agreed. He said the state has already made some exceptions in the law that were common sense, such as allowing foreign students living with a family to be considered family members.
Summers said his staff is working on legislation and a study proposal for the panel to consider in the January session.