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Publish Date: 4/24/2005

Roads to be safer for teens
New laws would reduce distractions for rookies

DENVER — Justin Kamas, who got his learner’s permit in Longmont on Wednesday, will face a raft of driving restrictions for the next two years as he builds up experience behind the wheel.

For the next year, the 15-year-old Erie boy will have to have his father, Robert, or his mother, Rhonda, alongside him as he develops and practices the motoring skills the state expects him to have mastered before he applies for the minor’s license that will allow him to drive solo.

To make the transition from learner to driver safer, state lawmakers want a minimum of distractions for Justin and other beginning drivers.

Under a measure Gov. Bill Owens signed into law earlier this month, teens can’t use a cell phone while they’re driving on a learner’s permit, even if the adult passengers might allow it.

“We know that cell phones can be a distraction, even among drivers with many years of experience,” Owens said. “We know for certain it’s one more distraction for these young drivers who maybe aren’t quite as competent as we hope they soon will be.”

The cell phone ban won’t take effect until Aug. 10, but Justin — who turned 15 March 26 — said he doesn’t have any problem with it.

He’s been taking a driver’s education class at Erie High School and practicing driving in his mother’s 2002 Dodge Ram 1500 truck.

He said he’s already been learning about the need to concentrate on the road.

He said he’s also fine with another measure Owens signed into law Thursday. That bill, in effect July 1, will restrict newly licensed teen drivers from carrying teen passengers.

Under that revision to Colorado’s six-year-old graduated driver’s licensing system, teen drivers aren’t allowed to carry passengers younger than 21 during the first six months of a minor’s license.

During the second six months, the teen driver can have only one minor passenger, although family members are exempted from the restriction.

“That means that these youngsters will be able to focus more on driving and less on talking to their friends, when they’re most vulnerable,” Owens said.

“I think those are fine laws to pass,” Justin said. “It’ll help keep teens under control and not worrying about talking and driving.”

Justin recounted being in a car with one of his newly licensed friends and three other teen passengers. Nothing bad happened, he said, but “it was really kind of weird how he was paying more attention to them and wasn’t paying any attention to the road.”

As for Justin’s classmates’ reactions to the new laws, “some of them think it’s stupid. The other half think it’s a good idea,” he said.

He added, however, that many in the “stupid crowd” are ignoring existing driving laws anyway; some even drive without a permit or license.

Bad things have happened to too many inexperienced Colorado drivers and their teen passengers, supporters of graduated driver’s licensing say, and Owens said Thursday that “tragic consequences ... can occur with just a momentary distraction.”

The governor said 80 percent of teens’ deaths are auto-related.

In Colorado, youths between the ages of 16 and 20 represent 7 percent of the state’s drivers but 19 percent of annual traffic deaths.

Owens said the two new laws for teen drivers are meant to save the “lives of teenage drivers and their young passengers.”

“I know that next year on this day, while we’ll never know the names, there are going to be children alive in Colorado because of these two bills,” Owens predicted during Thursday’s bill-signing ceremony.

“Next year at this time, some parents are going to enjoy a wonderful spring morning with their children, not knowing how much they owe to the people here who caused these two bills to be passed,” the governor said.

Larimer County Republican Sen. Steve Johnson, the Senate sponsor of the cell phone measure, said the two bills might address a particular problem with traffic fatalities, many involving teens, in Weld County.

Johnson noted that the signing ceremony came on his 45th birthday and expressed the hope that the two new teen-driving laws “will enable more Colorado kids to see their next birthday.”

Sen. Suzanne Williams, the Aurora Democrat who introduced the passenger-restriction bill, said it had taken a two-year struggle to get that measure passed, with children dying in auto accidents that might have been prevented had it been in place.

“We want that to stop,” Williams said.

Parker Republican Rep. Mike May noted the nearly dozen teen driver and passenger deaths in Douglas County last year and said that last summer, members of his community “spent our time at funerals.”

Cortez Republican Rep. Mark Larson, who was credited with keeping the Williams-May bill from dying after initial House debate over the measure, said he’ll never forget public hearing testimony from the parents and other family members of Colorado kids killed in crashes.

“It wasn’t because of alcohol. It wasn’t because of drugs,” Larson said. “It wasn’t because of anything but for the lack of experience.”

John Fryar can be reached at jfryar@times-call.com

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