OC HI: STUDENT NEWS AND VIEWS : Tough Brakes : Law: Unlicensed teen drivers are putting lives at risk--and prompting stricter legislation.


There is a growing population on the streets of Southern California--unlicensed teen-age drivers. Their numbers have soared, officials say, because of the virtual elimination of free high school driver-training courses, the high cost of training and insuring a young driver and a recent law requiring proof of legal residency for license-seekers.

"I was waiting till I reached 18 so I didn't have to go through driver training," says one teen-age driver, who still plans to get her license this year. "That's $200 I didn't have to spend."

She's driven without so much as an illegal-U-turn ticket since she was 12, she says proudly, although she acknowledges she's had a few mishaps. Others haven't been so lucky.

In June, a car driven by an unlicensed 15-year-old collided with two other vehicles in Santa Clarita, killing the teen and her two passengers. Three months earlier, a car driven by an unlicensed 18-year-old collided with another vehicle in Sun Valley. His teen-age passenger, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the car and died.

But to many teens, it remains a game.

"I got caught driving without a license," said one teen, adding that she had to pay a $81 fine but continues to jump behind the wheel.

"I've never been to the DMV," boasts another unlicensed driver.

The state quit funding driver training in 1990, leading many school districts to discontinue the driving lessons, which are required for under-18 license-seekers. So students must turn to for-profit driving schools, which charge $165 and up for classroom education and training.

The costs of insurance ($860 and up), registration (2% of a car's value) and permit and license ($24--the bargain of the process), authorities say, have also fed the decline in the number of teens seeking licenses.

While the teen-age population remained about the same from 1981 to 1991, the percentage of licensed drivers ages 16 to 19 fell nearly a third, according to the most recent DMV statistics. There are at least two possible explanations: More teens are delaying getting behind the wheel, and fewer get a license before they do start driving.

Experts say there are as many as 2 million unauthorized drivers in the state--one of every 10 motorists--although no one is sure how many are teens. Says DMV spokesman Evan Nossoff: "The number of licensed teen drivers continues to decline."

In 1993, the California Highway Patrol logged a 7% increase over 1992 in citations given out to those who have never held a license. Judges can fine unlicensed drivers from $81 to $675. With repeat teen offenders, the DMV can deny licensing into their adult years.

Frustrated by unlicensed drivers who flout the system, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) authored a law that mandates confiscation of an unlicensed driver's own car the second time he or she is caught driving it.

"The bill came from a frustration in watching all the attempts in the past several years, including fines," Katz says, "and all these things seemed to have no impact."

A law authored by state Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco) picks up where Katz's leaves off. It allows 30-day impoundment of any car used by an unlicensed driver, regardless of who owns it.

"The bill is based upon the inordinate amount of injury, damage and death on California roadways caused by unlicensed drivers," Kopp says.

Both laws took effect Jan. 1.

Some argue that restoring state money for driver training would be a better solution.

A suit filed by the nonprofit California Assn. for Safety Education and now being weighed by a state appellate court accuses Sacramento of collecting money for a driver-training fund (through traffic tickets), then diverting it to the state's general fund. It demands the money be put back into driver training.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Shellyanne Chang counters that "the Legislature and the governor have joint legislative authority" to spend traffic-ticket money on any state program they deem most needy.

In the meantime, safety education association President James M. Lewis says: "We're creating a generation of outlaws."

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