Ohio teen drivers may face new limits

MARIETTA – Laughing, chatting groups of teenagers spilled from the cars arriving at the Washington County Career Center Thursday morning.

Carpooling is a part of the morning ritual at the school with nearly every other car sporting at least one person in the passenger seat.

“She doesn’t have a license yet, so I pick her up,” 16-year-old Paige Ferguson said of her passenger, McKenzie Biehl.

The pair usually ride together, but all that would change under a proposed Ohio law that would prohibit 16- and 17-year-old drivers from ferrying a single other teen passenger.

The proposal, which would also bump up the teen driving curfew from midnight to 10 p.m., was introduced by Rep. Rick Perales, R-Beavercreek, to bring Ohio’s teen driving laws closer in line with recommendations of safety groups such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Teens insist they are already cautioned by parents, mentors and their peers.

“I think I’m safer with friends in my car. That’s when I try to be most careful. I don’t want them to think I’m a bad driver,” said 16-year-old Marietta High School junior Miranda Henes, who has had her license for six months.

Tightening the rules would require a parent or authority figure in the car with teens long after the typical permitted driving period, said Hollianne Lent, a 16-year-old Frontier High School student.

“Your parents are in the car when you’re learning to drive, but then you hit that age and you just want to be free,” she said.

A 2010 study published in the journal “Traffic Injury Prevention” found that areas with stricter licensing laws had 30 percent fewer fatal crash rates in the 15- to 17-year-old age range.

Frontier student Ashton Amos, 15, said she recognized that more passengers means more distraction, but thinks that being licensed means you are trustworthy enough to make passenger decisions on your own.

“I do think it’s more dangerous (having multiple passengers), but I would be able to take responsibility for limiting distractions myself,” said Amos, who can get her permit next month.

The stricter curfew also poses a problem for teens.

“I take my friends to the football games. You’d have to leave before halftime to be home by 10,” said Warren High School junior Jane Kubala, 16.

The law provides curfew exemptions for teens going to work and school.

However, the law is noticeably vague about defining how much those exemptions would cover, said Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta.

“What does school activities entail? Is it school itself? Is it a football game? A practice?” he said.

Thompson, who has a teenage son nearing driving age, said he recognizes that teens are not always the most responsible drivers, but thinks the law is an overreach.

“It’s kind of a blanket way of saying all kids are totally irresponsible. Therefore we can’t allow them any kind of freedom,” he said.

Thompson also worries that the law would be somewhat of an inconvenience to families who could be doing a lot more chauffeuring if the law passed.

Cathy Harper, a mother from Marietta, said many teens are diligent on the roads. Harper also is coordinator of the Right Path for Washington County, which promotes safe and healthy youth development.

“I think a lot of them are already trying to do these safeguards,” said Harper, whose 16-year-old son Stephen Harper is a recent licensee.

Harper said she is surprised at how often she sees fellow adults using phones while driving.

“If I’m driving and my phone rings, I might look down. I won’t even pick it up and my son still gets on me,” she said.

The law has at least one teenage fan.

Marietta High School student Roscoe Hardman, 15, can get his license soon, but does not plan on driving much.

Most teens should not have a license until they’re 18, he said.

“They’re not responsible enough,” said Hardman.