August 30, 2012

Maine teens feeling pinch of tougher driving restrictions

Maine lawmakers approved legislation this year that requires any new license holder younger than 18 to drive on an intermediate license for 9 months

By Eric Russell
Staff Writer

In the first six months they had their driver's licenses, Danielle Kane, Maddie Richardson and Eden Monsen of Brunswick had to live with certain restrictions.

They couldn't tool around town with a bunch of friends in the car. They couldn't drive between midnight and 5 a.m. And no cellphone use.

"It was definitely a hassle," Kane, 18, said Wednesday in the parking lot at the Maine Mall, where the three friends were doing some back-to-school shopping.

Told that those restrictions for new drivers will be extended from six months to nine months beginning Thursday, all three said they were glad they already have licenses.

"I think two or three months is probably long enough," said Richardson, 17.

Maine lawmakers approved legislation this year that requires any new license holder who's younger than 18 to drive on an intermediate license for nine months. That means no passengers who aren't family members or at least 20 years old, no driving after midnight and no cellphone calls.

Any violation of those restrictions makes the clock on the intermediate license start over. Drivers who got intermediate licenses before Thursday will still have six months of restrictions.

Some of the penalties for driving violations are also going up. The minimum fine for texting while driving is now $250, up from $100. That change applies to all drivers, but it's meant mostly to deter teenagers, many of whom use text messaging as their primary form of communication.

Secretary of State Charlie Summers drafted the changes in response to a rash of fatal accidents last fall and winter that involved teenage drivers. Drivers age 16 to 24, who make up a little more than 10 percent of all licensed drivers in Maine, are involved in nearly 30 percent of the state's fatal motor vehicle crashes.

Teenagers asked this week about the new restrictions on young drivers had mixed reactions. They agreed that making roads safer is important, but complained that younger drivers are being singled out.

The most onerous restriction for teenagers appears to be the one that forbids new drivers from having passengers who aren't family members unless a licensed driver who's at least 20 is in the car. They want to be with their friends, including in the car.

Michaela Weeks, 16, and Delaney Nolin, 17, both from Cumberland, agreed that some restrictions are appropriate, but they called the lengthened probationary period "really annoying."

"Six months is a long time," Nolin said.

Weeks has had her license for only a month, so she still has five more to go. "It's going to be hard," she said, but at least it's not eight more months.

Chris Thomastak, 17, of Portland has a learner's permit and will take the driver's license test in about a month. When he does get his license, he will have play by the rules for nine months instead of six.

"There are obviously pros and cons," he said. "But if it's saving people from doing stupid things, I guess it's good."

His friend Bobby Parent, 18, has had his license for two years. He said the first six months were tough.

He said he had friends who didn't follow the rules. "There's a lot of peer pressure to all ride somewhere together," he said.

Claire McHugh and Lillian Larochelle, 15-year-olds from South Portland, have their learner's permits but won't be able to get their licenses until next year. Both said nine months is too long for intermediate licenses.

"Kids don't follow the rules now," Larochelle said while shopping in the Old Port on Wednesday. "If you bump it up, more people will break the rules."

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