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Man suspected of trying to run over Bismarck police officer found in South Dakota

Driving laws divide teenage driver's able to obtain permit; Dickinson students learning to drive defensively

In addition to dealing with new driver's licensing restrictions passed during the last legislative session and taking effect Jan. 1, driver's education students in Dickinson are getting a course in defensive driving, officials said.

Zachary Keller, 15, Dickinson, is able to obtain his license six months after receiving his permit. His June 26 driving partner, Evan Wilkie, 14, Dickinson, will have to wait a year.

"I was bummed out," Wilkie said.

The new laws might not affect the driver's education instructors, but they have affected students, instructor Dave Michaelson said, adding those who turned 15 before the first of the year were grandfathered in under the old law.

The biggest change to the law requires teen drivers to have a driver's permit for one year before taking a behind-the-wheel test, according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation Rules of the Road 2011-13 edition. Drivers licensed before the age of 16 face additional restrictions. For example, drivers cannot drive in the dark unless going to or from a church, school or work activity.

The driver's ed curriculum hasn't changed much with the new laws, but Dickinson integrated "Alive at 25," a national program sponsored by the North Dakota Safety Council, a Bismarck-based nonprofit, Dickinson High School Vice Principal Calvin Dean said.

"Alive at 25" is a defensive driving course designed for drivers 24 years old and under, he added.

The program was brought to North Dakota in 2008 to address a teen driver fatality rate higher than the national average, said Terry Weaver, NDSC traffic safety program coordinator.

"It's very different from what driver's ed is," she said. "'Cause they teach the skills behind driving and what 'Alive at 25' teaches is the behaviors and consequences."

It also encourages discussion, Weaver said. This allows the national program to meld and work well in a rural state like North Dakota.

Not many schools integrate the program into their driver's education, but courses are available through NDSC throughout the state, she said.

In Dickinson, driver's ed through the public school only takes place in the summer, Dean said. Statewide the course consists of 30 hours of classroom work and 12 hours in a vehicle with the instructor, six behind the wheel and six observing.

Previously, drivers could obtain a license after driving under supervision with a permit for six months.

"In the past, students could take driver's education as early as age 14, and they can still do that," Dean said. "The only difference is they have to hold their permit for a longer time before they get their license."

The biggest reason North Dakota allowed drivers to obtain licenses at 14 1/2 was to allow children to help parents on the farm, NDDOT Driver's License Division Director Glenn Jackson said.

The restrictions won't impede farm work, he said, but give teens a chance to drive in all weather conditions with adult supervision before obtaining a license.

"All we've done is shifted that back six months," Jackson said of driver's licenses. "So it really hasn't changed significantly, but it does give them 12 full months of driving under supervision."

The changes are for the better, Michaelson said.

"We were behind the times," he said. "We allow a 14-year-old, or 14-and-a-half-year-olds, to get their license. I just think that was too soon."

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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