JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's teenagers might be upset to find out their driving privileges could be in jeopardy.
If it becomes law, a bill before Missouri lawmakers would place new restrictions on drivers under the age of 18. Sixteen and 17-year-olds would only be able to get an "intermediate" driver's license.
They would not be able to drive between 1 and 5 a.m. unless accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. The plan includes exceptions for going to or from school events, places of employment or emergency situations.
"It is necessary because this is a time where statistics show there are a lot of very serious accidents with young people, and it is probably better to get more training and to become a more responsible driver," said Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis County, sponsor of one of the several bills filed this year to restrict teen driving.
Despite the added restrictions, Goode's plan would actually allow driving to begin at a younger age. With a guardian's written permission, adolescents would be able to get a temporary driver's permit on their 15th birthday. Current law requires them to wait another six months before they can acquire a permit.
But the added bonus for 15-year-olds is no probably consolation for many teenagers.
"I just know that I wouldn't like to wait until I am 18 to be able to drive freely on my own. I like having my independence at 16," said Rebeca Null, an 18-year-old Columbia resident.
The plan has the support of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Weldon Wilhoit, Patrol superintendent, testified in favor of it at a recent hearing of the Senate Transportation Committee.
"Our big concern is safety," Wilhoit said after the hearing. "The 15 to 18-year-old drivers in the state of Missouri only account for less than 6 percent of the total drivers, but they are involved in 20 percent of the fatality accidents."
Wilhoit said he was concerned about the maturity of the young drivers, who he said tend to be more reckless than others behind the wheel. "When you are young, sometimes you do things because you are with other kids in the car," he said. "You are not paying quite as close attention."
Columbia resident Megan Thelen, 17, admitted that teenagers are sometimes reckless, but said that would only make this plan more difficult to enforce.
"I don't think it'd be good because you have people that...they only want to have fun. People under 18 will drive anyways in the night. They don't really care," said Thelen.
According to Wilhoit, the average rate of car accidents involving youngsters in 26 states with these more restrictive laws has dropped 16 percent. He said Missouri has a high rate of car accidents involving teenagers.
"Two out of three 16-year-old kids killed in 1997 were a result of a car crash," said Wilhoit. That number includes both drivers and passengers.
Quentin Wilson, director of the Missouri Revenue Department, also testified in favor of the added restrictions.
"The group that actually introduced this to us was a group of students in driver's ed programs who had lost some of their friends in accidents," Wilson said. He added that the Revenue Department has suggested more restrictions for several years, although the department has not been directly involved with previous legislative efforts.
Wilson also said the earlier permits for 15-year-olds is an important part of the proposal, so that young drivers have more time to be taught behind the wheel by the parents or guardians.
Goode said part of the problem is the state's current driver's education is not effective enough.
"Years back there were drivers training in most public schools," Goode said. "Most of these programs in schools have disappeared, so the view is that these new drivers are not very well trained."
Thelen suggested, instead of added restrictions, the driver's ed programs should be emphasized more. "It is true that some of the young drivers are not responsible. I think on the highway, driver education should be required," she said.