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 ABCNews.com.

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.

"What is being proposed has never been tried anywhere. We can't possibly know what the effect could be. We're going entirely on conceptual analysis," said Rob Foss, director of the Center for Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "We have no evidence it will do any good."

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Foss argues that the elements in the bill are "ancient," and that even though it is well intentioned, it could end up disrupting good programs that already exist in some states.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety currently ranks programs in 35 states as "good."

It will also unfairly affect rural communities, Foss says, where parents often count on their teenagers to help them with their work and be mobile.

"Life is very different and the natures of driving are very different" from state to state, Foss said. "The culture of states is really very important in this issue. This is not like a speed limit, or this is not like a requirement to wear motorcycle helmets. This goes to the very heart of life as it's lived by families."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who sponsored the Senate bill, argued that it doesn't disproportionately affect rural communities; it simply sets the basic standards that can be molded in each state.

"There are rural communities that need young people to drive to and from work, to get to and from school, but states can carve those exceptions out. This is just setting standards for the training that they have to receive," Gillibrand told ABCNews.com. "We are not trying to stop kids from going to school or going to and from work."

Other supporters of the bill cite high motor vehicle accidents in rural areas to argue that such programs are even more necessary there. According to NHTSA, 57 percent of deaths from car accidents occurred on rural roads, even though only 23 percent of the country's population lives in the rural areas.

The bill "doesn't say states can't do any better," said Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "All it does is say, we want to set a minimum floor which all states have to meet."

Some states have also expressed concern about the penalties imposed for not complying with the federal standards. The bill would give states three years to comply with the new rules, or a portion of their federal highway funding would be pulled.

Although it hasn't taken a position on the bill, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) expressed concern about that provision.

"Some people would say this is a heavy-handed approach for states," spokesman Jonathan Adkins said. "The question is that the best approach, to have Congress dictate the states in what has typically been a state area, something which is a state issue?"

Gillibrand said states should have ample time to comply, as they have done with other national standards, including for seat belt and minimum drinking age.

"States do this all the time. It's not difficult to meet these standards," she said. "The question is enforcing them."

In the House, sponsors are mulling two options -- one to pass the bill on its own, or, second, to incorporate it in the next reauthorization of the national highway bill.

Gillibrand said in the Senate, sponsors plan to include the language in the transportation reauthorization legislation.

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