Driven Mad

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The adolescent nether world of acne and awkwardness got a little tougher this week with Gov. Pete Wilson signing a new law restricting the freedom of teenage drivers.

Starting next summer, 16-year-old drivers may not carry passengers under the age of 20 without a chaperon--someone older than 25--riding along in the car. The law, written to reduce automotive fatalities, also prohibits teens from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. for a year after obtaining their licenses.

While politicians, parents and other adults believe the measure will save lives--some San Fernando Valley teens say they are being unfairly targeted.

"What? I can't drive with my girl?" cried Christian Ramirez, 14, as he waited to catch the city bus Friday afternoon. "I guess I'll have to go everywhere with my girl and her mother. They just want to stop us from having fun."

Michelle Jackson, president of the freshman class at El Camino Real High School, agreed the new restrictions seem to be aimed at taking the fun out of being a teenager. "You can't prevent every accident--I mean, that's why they're accidents," she said.

Michael Getz, 16, of Woodland Hills, and Tarzana resident Mike Fox, 17, also criticized the new rules. The law "sucks for everyone. It will keep us off the road--we just won't be able to drive," said Fox, as he leaned against his gray, late-model Pontiac Firebird. "Parents aren't going to want to drive their kids every place."

Taft High School student Zaki Barak, 17, won't be affected by the law, but he sympathized with his younger friends. When told the reason behind the law, to reduce driving accidents, he came up with his own solution: "I know what they should do: They should take all the old folks off the street."

Barak, who was driving home from school with three buddies, said the law will probably end up being another excuse for police to pull over teenage drivers.

One of his youthful passengers agreed.

"There's going to be a lot of cops messing with us," said Mohammed Nasim, 16, of Canoga Park. "They already want to pull you over if you have a boomin' [music] system or a customized car, now it's going to be worse."

According to state legislators, the law is supposed to be enforced by police only if a driver is pulled over for another violation, such as speeding or drunk driving.

Stephen Rohde, a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, sides with teens, saying the law plays on stereotypes and puts unnecessary restrictions on law-abiding youths.

"This is not a law that punishes wrongdoing, this simply punishes teens for their status and age," said Rohde. "Somehow your status is evidence that you are doing something wrong or are about to do something wrong--this is simply irrational."

For youths already wary of authority, Rohde said, such legislation only increases their suspicion of police. And despite legislators' assurances, Rohde believes the law could be abused.

"What young people resent is when they are treated as second-class citizens merely because of their age--this law is a perfect example of that," he said. "I think we're getting carried away with not trusting our kids to act responsibly."

Canoga Park resident Fadi Ghishan, 17, said he drives his newly purchased BMW responsibly. He said he uses the car to run errands for his mother and go to work.

But his friend, Vahan Sarkissian, 17, says maybe the law is a good idea.

"Too many kids in the car make too many distractions," he said. "I like the law."

So does Isabelle Martin, 61, a North Hollywood grandmother of three teens, two of whom drive. She said her granddaughter recently drove to a skating party with one friend and ended up driving around five of her friends.

"You know how those teenagers are," she said. "They will all pile in a car, and with so many, how is everybody going to have a seat belt on?"

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