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No wee-hour driving for 16-year-olds
Law also requires 30 hours of experience for a regular license

The age of 16 arrives and, like magic, most young Utahns' lives are transformed. They suddenly have licenses to drive.

But beginning next month, that privilege will come with one major restriction: After midnight, the carriage turns into a pumpkin.At least it may seem that way to any 16-year-old driver out after midnight. Like giant orange gourds cruising down State Street, their vehicles are likely to draw the attention of police officers.

A new state law taking effect July 1 prohibits any licensed driver under the age of 17 from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. -- unless they have a good reason, as defined by law.

The same law mandates that 16-year-olds receive 30 hours of on-road driving experience -- including the six hours they receive in their drivers' education course -- before trading in their practice permit for a regular license. Their parents, guardians or adult spouses must accompany them on the road and verify that the practice, including 10 hours of night driving, has occurred.

The law is aimed at making 16-year-olds better drivers and keeping them out of situations -- namely, night driving -- that statistically increase their chances of having a serious or fatal accident.

"It's another tool to protect these kids and give them a good start in life," said Lt. Verdi White II, spokesman for the Utah Department of Public Safety. "There's not a lot of good that can happen in the (early) morning, particularly to a young person.

According to the National Association of Independent Insurers, teens make up 10 percent of the driving population in Utah but were involved in 21 percent of traffic fatalities in 1997. Forty percent of teen traffic deaths nationally occur between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The law permits 16-year-olds to drive at night under certain circumstances:

A licensed driver age 21 or older is in the passenger's seat.

The driver is working or going directly to or from work, including a farm or ranch operation.

The driver is going to or from a church or school activity.

There is an emergency.

The law says nothing about how 16-year-olds might prove it's lawful for them to be driving. That will be up to the law officer and, ultimately, the courts.

But those who followed the legislative process and helped create the law say 16-year-old drivers with legitimate excuses shouldn't need to carry a note.

"That was not the intent. . . . There's definitely a difference between the spirit and the letter of the law," said Craig Allred, director of the Utah Highway Safety Office. "If you have a young person out at 3 o'clock in the morning and they say they're coming back from work, well, there's a big problem with that because young people are not supposed to work at that hour.

"The deadliest crashes are those in the early morning hours, so the intent was to say, yes, this is going to be difficult to enforce but it's worth it if we can save some of the kids."

There is little debate that more practice will improve the quality of young drivers on the road.

In a Deseret News opinion poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates in February, 90 percent of Utah adults surveyed said they liked the 30-hour practice requirement.

"The kids haven't been that negative about it because they want to drive anyway," Jerry Simonson, a Taylorsville High School drivers education teacher, said after a road-test session Friday.

"It's forcing the parents to do what the kids want to do anyway -- get out and drive."

Fifteen-year-old students in Simonson's class said it won't be that difficult for them to get the practice time and said staying out past midnight isn't something they'd be likely to do anyway.

Jason Lund said both of his parents work so finding practice is a challenge, but his parents support the idea. Thomas La said he'll get more practice time this way than he would have without the law. Matthew Weiner said he expects to be a more confident driver when his 30 hours are in the book.

"They want me to be safe," Jared Zimmerman said of his parents' feelings. "I think it's going to help a lot."

But the students said they know of 16-year-old drivers who are out past midnight and predicted the new law wouldn't change that behavior.

Allred said the law will give newly licensed drivers a way to avoid peer pressure.

"It's been interesting how many young people have talked to me and said it's great to have an excuse to go home at midnight," Allred said. "Before, it was social pressure to stay out late. There's already a curfew in most of the area and there's already the parents, but this is just one more thing, to say you don't want to do this because you don't want to get the ticket."

Violation of the law is a class-C misdemeanor, punishable by zero to three months in jail and a fine of $0-$500. In reality, Allred said, any fines handed out would likely be in the $40 range.

"My sense is that officers are going to be pretty reasonable about this," White added. "They're going to ask them what they're doing and if they feel like it's a legitimate thing, if it's within the law and the kids are not drinking alcohol or doing the types of things that would make them suspicious, then I think that's not going to be a problem."

Gail Johnson, a Utah Driver and Traffic Education Association board member, said the association favored a more extensive slate of changes in the youth driving law. An early version of the bill would have required all passengers riding with 16-year-olds to wear seat belts. Another bill would have raised the age at which a Utahn can obtain a regular license from 16 years to 16 years, three months.

"As a driver education specialist, I am so pleased that we have formed a partnership with parents and legal guardians to work together to provide a safe atmosphere for students to drive," Johnson said.

Practice may not make perfect, but it can't hurt -- take it from a guy who rides with beginning drivers every day. Simonson has been in the passenger's seat, with his own brake on the floor in front of him, as witness to many a test-course fiasco.

"If I didn't have the brake," Simonson said, "I'm not sure I'd do this."