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Lawmaker pushes for increase in driving age

Ed Gruchalla

FARGO -- In 25 years as a North Dakota Highway Patrol trooper, Ed Gruchalla saw his share of young drivers who encountered tragedy.

Wednesday's fatal crash near Alexandria, Minn., involving a 15-year-old driver from Cass County has only increased Gruchalla's resolve to raise the driving age in North Dakota.

Gruchalla, a Fargo resident who was elected to the state House in 2006, plans to introduce a bill early in 2009 that would push the licensed driving age from 14 to 16, with first-time drivers receiving a graduated license that would restrict when and with whom they can drive.

The bill would allow 14-year-olds to drive with a permit. Permitted drivers would have to wait at least a year before applying for a license, instead of the current six months.

Gruchalla said most driver training occurs in the summer and doesn't address winter's dangers.

"In my experience, it seems like driver inexperience contributes to a large portion of the crashes in North Dakota," said Gruchalla, who recalled an incident when he was in the Highway Patrol.

A 15-year-old who had had her license for just a week became lost and ended up on a gravel road for the first time.

Gruchalla said she lost control of her vehicle, crashed and was killed when she was thrown from the car.

Similar situations have arisen recently involving young drivers in North Dakota and Minnesota.

- On Dec. 10, an 8-year-old died when a car being driven by her 15-year-old sister collided with another vehicle on Fargo's South University Drive.

- In September, a 20-year-old motorcyclist was killed when he collided with an SUV driven by a 15-year-old making a left turn on 25th Street South in Fargo.

- Last summer, a car driven by a 16-year-old in Mahnomen County, Minn., collided with a car carrying a pregnant woman who was injured along with the child she gave birth to by emergency Caesarean section.

- In 2006, a 16-year-old driver broadsided another vehicle near Enderlin. A 13-year-old passenger in the other vehicle died. The 16-year-old had been involved in a crash two weeks before and had no insurance.

Wednesday's crash prompted a discussion on the online version of the Fergus Falls (Minn.) Daily Journal that might be a preview of debate to come in the North Dakota Legislature.

"Sorry, but what in the ... is a 15-year-old doing driving anyways?" wrote one reader.

Another commenter wrote: "As for the driver's age debate, please take note that the first driver to spin out of control on icy roads was 58. It could have been any one of us!"

Young people in North Dakota can now get a permit at 14 and test for their license after six months behind the wheel.

Years ago, Gruchalla said, the licensed driving age in North Dakota was 16, with an exemption that allowed rural kids to get a license at 14 so they could help on the farm.

Eventually, the driving privilege was extended to 14-year-olds in general, said Gruchalla, who expects that his proposal to raise the driving age will run into opposition from farm groups.

To make the bill more politically viable, he said it will likely contain an exemption to allow rural teens to be licensed at 14.

Sandy Clark, public policy director for the North Dakota Farm Bureau, said her organization supports current licensing rules.

She said the Farm Bureau adopted a program about two years ago that offers a $1,000 savings bond to young people who complete a training course and go 1,000 days without a driving violation.

The program has yet to reach its first 1,000 days and Clark said she did not have numbers for how many are participating.

"We certainly want young people and young drivers to be safe on the road. We also need their services in agriculture," Clark said.

Gruchalla said most behind-the-wheel instruction young people take is designed to help them make it through the driving part of their license test and not much more.

"Having this longer (one-year) training period is the key to preventing some of these crashes," said Gruchalla, who expects a driving age bill will have support from insurance companies and others.

Gruchalla said studies show that the brains of young people, particularly young males, do not fully develop until the late teens or early 20s.

Under his plan, young drivers could have only one other young person in the car at a time and they could not talk on cell phones or text-message while driving.

Driving would be prohibited from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

In Minnesota, drivers can get a permit at 15 and a license at 16.

New Minnesota rules prohibit drivers younger than 18 from text messaging or talking on cell phones; driving between midnight and 5 a.m. unless accompanied by a licensed driver 25 or older; and driving with more than one passenger younger than 20, unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.