Tougher rules of road loom

Trying to make the streets safer for teenagers, legislators advanced bills Tuesday that would make Illinois one of the toughest in the nation when it comes to licensing young drivers and take driving rights away if teens are caught drinking or possessing alcohol.

The move comes in response to growing concerns about the deaths of teens on Illinois roads, accidents often caused by lack of experience behind the wheel and underscored by a yearlong Tribune examination into the causes of accidents involving teen drivers.

Lawmakers were further galvanized by a February accident in Oswego that claimed the lives of five teenagers who were believed to be coming back from a party in nearby Montgomery. The driver, who is 23, pleaded not guilty to reckless homicide and other felony charges in the crash, which prosecutors blamed on drunken driving.

Secretary of State Jesse White, after the Tribune series, formed a task force that recommended sweeping changes to the state's graduated driver's license program for teens.

The legislation would sharply restrict driving privileges for anyone under age 18. Young drivers would have to practice with a learner's permit for nine months before getting a license, up from the current three months.

Young drivers would be required to wait at least a year before transporting more than one unrelated teen passenger.

Legislation would also move up curfew by one hour, to 10 p.m. weekdays and 11 p.m. weekends.

"There are going to be a lot of states that duplicate this when we are done," said Rep. John D'Amico (D-Chicago), the bill's sponsor. "This will make them better, more productive drivers, and it's safer for everyone on the road."

The proposal, which passed the Senate in March, was approved 11-0 by the House Drivers Education and Safety Committee.

The bill has attracted more than 30 co-sponsors in the House, with a floor vote possible next week.

By tripling the length of the permit phase, proponents said, young drivers would encounter a full range of weather situations, from ice and snow to heavy rain and bright sunshine.

Teens also would have to maintain a clean driving record for at least 15 months before being issued a full license.

Students would be required to undergo at least six hours of behind-the-wheel training from a certified driving instructor. The Tribune found some instructors provided just two hours of behind-the-wheel experience.

A license could be revoked if a young driver is convicted of at least two moving violations within 24 months, as well as for racing on public streets.

"This is a comprehensive package of reforms that really looks at how we educate our young drivers," said Rep. Dan Brady (R-Bloomington), who noted that the new restrictions would require parents to be more involved in teaching their teens safe behavior behind the wheel.

To discourage minors from drinking and driving, the Senate Transportation Committee unanimously approved a bill that would revoke the driving privileges of anyone placed under court supervision for underage drinking or possession of alcohol. The offense does not have to involve driving.

"For teenagers, their driver's license is their No. 1 concern," said Kendall County State's Atty. Eric Weis, who testified for the bill Tuesday. "They are not afraid of the court system
Kids know they aren't going to jail for a first offense. But every 16-
or 17-year-old I know also doesn't want to have to ride the bus to school."

Once the three-month suspension is over, the offense would be removed from the minor's public driving record.

"We don't want to make criminals out of kids," said Rep. Tom Cross (R-Oswego) , who sponsored the bill in the House.

The bill, which passed the House 115-1 in March, is expected to be voted on by the full Senate within two weeks.