PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A measure that prohibits beginning drivers from using cellphones or other electronic devices until they get unrestricted licenses at age 16 passed through a South Dakota House committee Tuesday.
But the Transportation Committee rejected a bill that would have required beginning drivers to wait longer before driving unaccompanied by adults after lawmakers said it would inconvenience parents.
The panel considered four bills recommended by a task force set up by the Legislature two years ago to find ways to reduce teen traffic rates and fatalities. All four measures were approved earlier by the Senate, but the House panel killed the measure seeking a longer training period for beginning drivers and a plan to limit the number of unrelated passengers in a vehicle driven by a teen with a restricted permit.
Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, chairman of the task force that wrote the bills, said the leading cause of death for those aged 14 to 17 is traffic crashes. Those crashes account for 44 percent of deaths in that age range in South Dakota, but 39 percent nationwide.
"We do have a problem. The safety of our teens and others on the road is at risk," Tieszen said.
The measure prohibiting beginning drivers from using a cellphone while behind the wheel passed on an 8-5 vote.
Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have already banned the use of cellphones by novice drivers. The South Dakota Legislature has repeatedly rejected measures to ban cellphone use by all drivers, but committee members said it's time to take the devices out of the hands of beginning motorists.
Tieszen said using a cell phone distracts drivers, particularly young ones.
Molly McCaskell, a member of a teen safety group in Rapid City, said 75 percent of teens have cell phones and many of the calls they make are while driving. If a driver diverts attention from the road for five seconds to deal with a phone, the vehicle travels 100 yards, she said.
"That five seconds could change a lot in our young people's lives as well as in your own," she said.
The restriction would go into effect July 1 if passed by the full House.
Another bill, defeated by a 9-4 vote, would have required beginning drivers to keep instruction permits for a year before moving to restricted permits that allow them to drive alone. Those who completed drivers' education courses could have moved to restricted permits after nine months.
South Dakota allows 14-year-olds to get instruction permits, the nation's youngest age for driving while accompanied by an adult. Those young drivers can graduate to restricted permits that allow them to drive alone in the daytime after six months, or just 90 days if they have completed a drivers' education course.
Tieszen said teens will be safer if they spend more time driving with parents before they can drive alone.
But some lawmakers said teens need to drive to school and other activities so their parents don't have to interrupt their work to transport them. Teens in rural areas also need to drive trucks and other farm vehicles at a young age, they said.
Rep. Dean Schrempp, D-Lantry, said his eight children learned to drive at age 7 or 8 on his ranch.
"I think if the parents would just work with these kids, they'd be able to drive at an earlier age," Schrempp said.
But Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls, said he supported a longer learning period because as a pastor, he too often must accompany a police officer to tell parents a teen has died child in a traffic crash.
"Those are really, really bad times," Hickey said.
The committee also voted 9-4 to kill the plan to limit the number of unrelated minors who could be passengers in a car driven by a teen with a restricted permit. Those limits would have been eased for trips to school or school events, but opponents said law officers would have found it hard to enforce because they would not know the age of a driver or whether the trip was school-related.
The fourth measure, which would set statewide standards to ensure the quality of drivers' education courses around the state, was endorsed and sent to the full House.
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