EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

New Hampshire

January 17, 2008

Bill would require teen drivers to get a learner's permit

Like many New Hampshire teens, Salem High School junior Michael DiTommaso started driving when he turned 151/2.

"I was very happy about that," he said, adding that there was no practice in the parking lot for him. He took the wheel with his parents by his side; on their first trip, he drove from Salem to Raymond.

"At first, my mother was a little tense," the 18-year-old said. "But I did well."

New Hampshire is the only state that still allows young people to start driving without a learner's permit, but Rep. Evalyn Merrick, D-Lancaster, has proposed changing the law to make teens wait until they turn 16, pass a written test and get a learner's permit before taking their parents out driving. In addition, the bill would raise the age to qualify for a youth driver's license from 16 to 17.

The bill, which is scheduled for a hearing today, also would add more hours of supervised driving with a parent - 40 hours above and beyond driver education class - before the teenager could qualify for a youth license, she said. Ten of those hours would have to be logged at night.

But the key piece is the learner's permit, Merrick said.

Parent Donna Dyer of Windham thinks Merrick has the right idea. Her twin daughters went out driving as soon as they turned 151/2, and could drive long before their friends who live in Massachusetts. They felt they were very lucky, she said. But Dyer thinks a little maturity and extra experience might make the passage to adulthood safer for everyone.

So do the experts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and AAA Northern New England all said car crashes are the leading cause of death for people 16 to 20.

According to the CDC's Web site, 16- to 19-year-old drivers are more likely to crash than any other age group, and four times more likely to have a crash for each mile they drive.

Those same experts said there is a proven way to reduce these accidents. It's called the graduated driver's license program.

New Hampshire does have a graduated driver licensing system, according to Pat Moody, a spokesman for AAA Northern New England. But it's inadequate, and the permit is one of the critical missing pieces, he said.

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