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Teen-driver law baffles police

Lawmakers look at additional rules to clarify statute

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Police have taken note of Utah's new teen driving law but apparently aren't sure how to enforce it.

The law, in effect since July 1, prohibits 16- and 17-year-olds, for the first six months they have a driver's license, from carrying passengers who are not immediate family members. Exceptions include emergencies, having a passenger 21 or older and working on a farm or ranch.

Also, teen drivers may get a slip signed by their parents saying they have permission to drive friends to and from school, school functions, church or church-related activities. That's the part officers are having trouble figuring out.

Some law-enforcement agencies say drivers need a note for each trip, while others say they need one for church and another for school. Rep. David Ure, R—Kamas, said he's heard of police requiring notarized letters. The authorization is to be kept in the vehicle and shown to an officer should the young driver be pulled over.

"Obviously, there are a lot of different opinions," said Judy Hamaker-Mann, state driver's license division director.

But newly licensed teenage drivers need only one parental note to legally cart their friends to places such as school or church, she said.

The informal clarification came Monday at meeting of the Legislature's Administrative Rules Committee where lawmakers discussed confusion among police over the new law.

The panel considered adopting an administrative rule that would clarify the statute.

"I'm a little concerned about people interpreting it one way or another then having a court case deciding the intent of the Legislature," said Sen. Ed Mayne, D—West Valley.

After "quite a bit of debate" at the driver's license division, Hamaker-Mann told legislators one signed note covering the six-month period will do. "The law is sufficient to stand on its own," she said.

The law, a watered-down compromise from what Sen. Karen Hale, D—Salt Lake, initially proposed, is designed to curtail distractions for young drivers and reduce the comparatively high rate of serious and fatal accidents involving teen drivers accompanied by their friends.

According to the Intermountain Injury Control Research Center and 1999 Utah accident statistics, 89 percent of the occupants of teenage-driven vehicles that were involved in wrecks were between the ages of 15 and 19.

Also, accidents in which a teenage-driven vehicle contained four or more occupants were twice as likely to be fatal than crashes involving teenage-driven vehicles with fewer passengers.

The allowance for a note from parents helped many rural lawmakers feel more comfortable with Hale's bill. Some were concerned that student car pools would be affected, crippling transportation patterns for families who live many miles from school.

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