PORTLAND, Maine — If teenagers think it’s tough to get a driver’s license now, just wait.
Maine’s secretary of state is developing new rules that would make it harder and more time-consuming for young drivers to get their licenses. Some of the rules could be in place by the end of March.
Drivers between 16 and 24 make up about 11 percent of Maine’s licensed drivers but are involved in 29 percent of the state’s motor vehicle deaths and 38 percent of injuries, said Secretary of State Charlie Summers. Since Christmas, eight crashes involving young drivers have killed 12 people. The goal, Summers said, is to make roads safer by better preparing young drivers.
Proposals under consideration include increasing the number of hours teens must spend behind the wheel to get an intermediate license or setting an earlier curfew for when they must be off the road. Another would double, from six to 12 months, the time they must hold an intermediate license before they can get an unrestricted license.
“We’re licensing a young person who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of experience to drive a [4,000-] or 5,000-pound piece of steel at, if you’re going north of Bangor, 75 mph,” Summer said. “The far-reaching effects of some bad decisions by these young people can hurt not only them and their families, but whole communities.”
Teenagers will probably agree with some of the proposals and be resistant to others, said 15-year-old Sarah Beth Campisi, a sophomore at Thornton Academy in Saco who has a driver’s permit. Age also creates a division in their opinions, she said.
“My older friends or friends my age don’t mind as much because it’s not affecting us since a majority of us already have permits,” Campisi said. “But my younger friends panicked because they didn’t want to deal with that much more work. They want it to be easy and a piece of cake. They don’t understand it’s serious and that driving isn’t a right, it’s a privilege.”
To get a driver’s license in Maine, students have to go through several steps.
First comes a permit, which teens can get if they’re 15, have taken 30 hours of driver’s education and passed a written test.
Next is an intermediate license. To get one, permitted drivers must complete 35 hours of practice driving with a supervising driver who’s at least 20 and had a license for at least two years. Five of the hours must be at night. Then, after six months, they must pass a road test. They also have to be at least 16.
Teens with intermediate licenses have some freedoms. They can drive alone, with family members or with licensed drivers over 20, but not with fellow teenagers. And they can’t drive between midnight and 5 a.m. or use a cellphone while driving.
Finally comes an unrestricted license. Teens who’ve had an intermediate license for 180 days can get one. During the first two years with that license, a driving violation means they automatically lose their driving privileges for 30 days.
To get ideas for which licensing rules need reworking, Summers held six public meetings this month across Maine.
A panel made up of law enforcement, driver’s education instructors, an insurance industry representative, state officials and a student will meet Feb. 8 and two or three times after that to draft recommendations. Summers said he will probably implement some of the proposals, possibly by the end of March. He’ll pass on other ideas to the Legislature’s transportation committee.
Summers supports requiring teens to log at least 70 hours of practice driving, rather than 35, and drive more at night before getting an intermediate license. He also thinks the minimum age of supervising drivers should be 25, not 20, while students hold permits.
He also backs a 10 p.m. curfew, rather than midnight, and increasing the length of time for an intermediate license to a full year from six months. That way, he said, students will drive under supervision in four seasons of weather conditions before being given an unrestricted license.
Other ideas under discussion include requiring students to take an online course about traffic signage and other driving basics so they can devote more time to on-the-road driving in driver education courses. Some have raised the possibility of making permitted drivers have 100 hours of practice driving to get an intermediate license or raising the permit age to 16.
The main goal is to have teenagers get more experience behind the wheel while under the watchful eye of an adult before they take to the street on their own, said Marvin Campbell, operations manager with Mullen’s Driving School and a member of the panel that’s exploring the issue.
“A lot of driving is about experience,” he said. “This is like on-the-job training.”
Campisi, who serves as a student representative on the panel, said she likes the idea of spending more time driving in all weather conditions before she moves on to an unrestricted license. But teenagers are likely to balk at a 10 p.m. driving curfew, she said.
Campisi’s older brother and sister both worked at an Old Orchard Beach soda shop when they had permits in years past, but often didn’t arrive home at night until 10:30 or sometimes later, she said. The curfew change could be burdensome for teenagers, their parents and businesses that rely on teens for jobs.
“That’s going to have unintended consequences against businesses and hurt the economy,” she said. “There has to be a balance.”