Like other teenagers, Kelly McFarlane dreams of transportation emancipation, of the day she can grab the car keys and cruise off down the street--alone, unrestrained.
So when McFarlane heard that young drivers licensed after July 1 will face tough new restrictions, she did the obvious: She raced down to the DMV to get her learner's permit.
"I'm trying to beat that new law," McFarlane, age 15 1/2, confessed as she prepared to take a driver's test at the Sacramento DMV branch this week. "And most of my friends are doing the same thing."
So it seems. In what is quickly becoming a statewide stampede, California teenagers are scrambling to apply for driving credentials before strict new rules put the brakes on fuel-injected freedom.
Statistics confirm the trend. Since the first of the year, Department of Motor Vehicles officials have issued 27% more provisional licenses than they did during the same period last year.
"These are usually pretty stable numbers," DMV spokesman Evan Nossoff said of the increase. "It's no secret to us what's going on."
Driving schools, meanwhile, are swamped with anxious teenagers rushing to complete classroom work and behind-the-wheel training. To shoulder the load, schools throughout the state are hiring instructors, adding classes and extending hours.
"We've never seen it so busy," said Suzanne Stavast, manager of the South Bay Driving School in Torrance and a second school in Westwood. "In May, we did double the business we did last May. Kids are panicking, and it's just chaos around here."
At the California Driving School in Monterey Park, demand has surged 50% over the last two months. In response, officials have added 13 instructors, scheduled new weekday classes and even toyed with the idea of opening additional branches.
"It's crazy," said the school's vice president, Carl Beatty. "The kids know change is coming, and they want to get in under the old system."
Essentially, California's new law treats novice drivers like novice swimmers, requiring them to spend more time in the shallow end with Mom or Dad before venturing solo into deep water.
Among the specifics:
* Drivers younger than 18 will have to hold a learner's permit for six months before they can get a provisional license, compared to the 30 days now required. During that time, parents must spend 50 hours driving with their child, including 10 hours at night. Current regulations mandate 30 hours.
* For six months after obtaining a provisional license, teenagers may not carry passengers under age 20 without an adult older than 25 in the car.
* For a full year after obtaining a provisional license, teenagers may not drive between midnight and 5 a.m. unless an adult is along. Exemptions are permitted for driving to and from school or work, and for family or medical reasons.
The new requirements place California with seven other states that have enacted so-called graduated licensing programs. Impressed by the payoff, 18 state legislatures are looking at similar proposals this year, traffic safety experts say.
California's new system was adopted by the Legislature last year in remembrance of two teenagers killed in separate car accidents--Brady Grassinger of Los Angeles and Jared Cunningham of San Luis Obispo.
Passed with solid bipartisan support, the Teen Driver Safety Act of 1997 adds California to a growing list of states that are sharply restricting the driving privileges of adolescents.
Although teenagers gripe that the crackdown is unfair, proponents of the law insist that it will save lives by ensuring that youths get more practice before they are set loose alone on the roads.
"The record shows that 16-year-olds are exceedingly dangerous drivers," said state Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Carnelian Bay), who carried the legislation on behalf of the Automobile Club of Southern California. "This law guarantees they get more experience before we give them complete freedom behind the wheel."
Sixteen-year-olds are 5.4 times more likely to be at fault in a fatal or injury accident than all other drivers. Seventeen-year-olds rank second, being 3.7 more likely than average drivers to have such accidents. After age 19, the accident rate falls markedly, which experts attribute to seasoning and better judgment.
In California, roughly 18,000 teenage drivers die or are injured in traffic wrecks each year. On average, one teenage driver is killed every other day in California.
Experts say controlling the conditions under which young motorists drive can cut the toll dramatically. After Maryland passed a law like California's, the state experienced a 40% drop in crashes that killed or injured youths. Pennsylvania took a similar step and saw a 69% drop in such accidents, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California.
Although substantial, the new restrictions on young drivers are difficult to enforce. In California, violators will be cited only if they are stopped for an additional offense, such as speeding or running a red light.
"They can't pull you over just for looking young," said Stavast of the South Bay Driving School. "You have to do something wrong first."
To slide in before the new rules take effect, teenagers must submit an application for a learner's permit and pay a fee to the DMV before July 1. They must also prove that they have either completed driver education or are enrolled in driver education and an on-the-road driving course, Nossoff said.
Although teenagers call the new rules an unjust infringement on their freedom, parents are enthusiastic about the limits.
"I'm all for it--especially that part about no driving late at night and no driving other people's kids," said Kelly McFarlane's mother, Sandy.
Still, she agreed to help her daughter obtain a permit before the new rules kick in. Why?
"She's a responsible person, and I don't blame her for not wanting to wait [six months] to get her license."
Besides, she added, "those restrictions in the law? They're already the rule in our house."
* SUMMERTIME BLUES: Parents are realizing the law on teenage drivers will hurt them too, Shawn Hubler writes. B1