Congress Targets Teen Driving, Mulls Federal Driver's License Standards

Obtaining a driver's license is considered a rite of passage in an American teenager's life, but a new bill in Congress could soon make that important milestone harder to achieve.

The Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act, or Standup Act, would set a federal standard for driver's licensing laws and raise the minimum age to 16 for a learner's permit, and 18 for a driver's license.

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The goal, its supporters say, is to implement a uniform graduated driver's licensing (GDL) policy across the country and remove the existing disparities. GDL programs, which are already in place in many states, are designed for teen drivers to practice under less risky conditions before they take to the road themselves.

"We're using the same techniques that we used for the drinking age, for blood alcohol level, for seat belts, and that is, we say we have a national standard," Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., who sponsored the legislation in the House, told

Driver's license laws vary widely from state to state. For example, only eight states and Washington, D.C., require a minimum entry age of 16, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Only 10 states require teenagers to hold a learner's permit for more than six months. Others have less stringent requirements, such as New Hampshire, which doesn't even have a mandatory period for holding a permit.

The bill, if it becomes law, would be the first of its kind. While there are national laws on seat belts and minimum drinking age, there are none that regulate licensing requirements for teens.

"We educate people to take on all kinds of responsibilities," Bishop said. "And the statistics are overpowering in terms of the damage than can be caused when kids get on the road and they're not prepared to drive."

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among teens between the ages of 15 and 20, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). For every mile driven, drivers aged 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash and in 2008, nine teens ages 16 to 19 died every day from motor vehicle injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Connecticut resident Sherry Chapman, whose 19-year-old son died in 2002 in a car his friend was driving, supports the legislation and is urging members of Congress to pass it.

"This bill will save young lives in our country and will serve to address this ... public health epidemic that is killing our teens at an alarming rate," said Chapman, who runs Mourning Parents Act, a non-profit organization that's developed a teen driving safety education program. "If you look at it from another point of view, two 9/11 attacks occurring in the United States every year taking out only teenagers, or from another perspective, it's 13 747 jets filled to capacity with teenagers crashing in the United States each year. That's how many young lives are lost."

The bipartisan bill, however, has come under fire from several fronts. Some say it unfairly targets teens; others charge that it doesn't capture the diversity that exists in the United States and that such laws should be left up to states.

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