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Teen license procedures changing

BISMARCK -- North Dakota teenagers are about to see some major changes when it comes to getting a driver's license.

Starting Sunday, young teens will need to wait longer before they are allowed to apply for a license. They will also need to have driving experience in certain conditions to get a license.

North Dakota legislators approved the changes earlier this year, but set a Jan. 1 effective date. Supporters say the revised rules will help keep teens and the roadways safer.

"We're hoping that these changes actually help to improve the driving skills of our youth before they get their unrestricted license," said Glenn Jackson, director of the state Drivers License Division. "If we can save a life, then we're doing the right thing. That's the whole goal of this: to give our kids a window where they can actually learn to drive better."

In the past week, teen drivers were involved in at least two area fatal crashes. A 15-year-old girl was killed and three juveniles were injured in a rollover near Parshall on Christmas Day.

A four-vehicle crash near Willmar, Minn., that killed one man and injured six people last weekend was caused by a 15-year-old driver.

In 2010, there were 30,970 teenage drivers ages 14 to 19 in North Dakota. Teen drivers were involved in 20.6 percent of crashes last year.

While the goal is to improve safety, some have found the new teen driving rules to be confusing, including legislators who asked several questions trying to understand the rules before approving them this spring.

Starting Sunday, 14-year-olds who apply for a driver's permit will need to wait at least 12 months before taking the driver's license test instead of the six months required now.

Fifteen-year-olds who apply for a driver's permit will need to keep the permit until age 16 or for a minimum of six months, whichever is longer, before applying for a license.

These young drivers will also be required to have a minimum of 50 hours of driving experience in various conditions before receiving a license. This includes night driving; driving on gravel, dirt or aggregate surface road; driving in both rural and urban conditions; and driving in winter conditions.

Not all teens are excited about the changes. Jackson said there has been an increase in teens applying for permits recently. Teens who receive a permit before Jan. 1 fall under the current law and can still apply for a license after six months.

While waiting in line to get a permit earlier this week, Jasmine Heidt, 14, of Bismarck, said she didn't want to wait a year to get a license.

Mikaela Hultberg, 14, of Scranton, also preferred the old rules and applied for a permit Tuesday. However, her dad, Bill Hultberg of Bismarck, doesn't mind the new rules, saying there are more vehicles on the road than when he was a teenager.

"A little extra time is OK now for the kids that don't have the experience," he said.

Besides changes to the permit rules, there are new license rules for young teens.

Teens younger than 16 who receive their driver's license after Sunday will be banned from driving between 9 p.m. or sunset -- whichever is later -- and 5 a.m. until they turn 16. They can drive during those hours if an adult is in the front seat or if the teen is driving directly to or from work, an official school activity or a religious activity.

North Dakota law already bans all drivers from texting while driving.

Under the new law, drivers younger than 18 who receive their permit or license after Sunday will also be banned from talking on the phone while driving unless it's an emergency.

The new rules do not affect a valid permit or license issued before Sunday. As a result, until teens "grandfathered in" move to a different driving level or become adults in the next few years, different rules will apply to different teens.

For example, 15-year-olds with a license today can drive late at night after Sunday, but 15-year-olds who get a license after Sunday will have restrictions.

Maj. Mike Gerhart of the North Dakota Highway Patrol said he met with Drivers License Division employees last week to discuss enforcement concerns.

Gerhart said teen drivers will likely need to be pulled over for another violation and, through that process, law enforcement will discover if the teen licensing rules are being violated.

"It's going to take a little bit of time for everybody to transition through," Gerhart said. "In a couple years, everybody will be on the same page."

The Department of Transportation took an extra step to help law enforcement know which driver's licenses were issued after Sunday. The back of new licenses will include additional wording about the teen restrictions.

Jackson, the state Drivers License Division director, said the Rules of the Road books were updated and include a log book to help young teens keep track of the 50 hours of supervised driving experience. The 50 hours are in addition to the formal driver's education requirements.

The supervision of these hours can be provided by anyone meeting the requirements for supervising a permit holder, said Gene LaDoucer of AAA North Dakota and the North Dakota Coalition for Graduated Driver Licensing.

Even though the requirement is in the law, the state won't look at the log book or enforce the 50-hour rule besides requiring the parent and teen to sign a form saying the requirement was met when the teen applies for a license.

The new teen driving rules differ from the original graduated driver's license legislation proposed.

Legislators determined these rules had better odds of passing.

LaDoucer expects to be back next session to ask for additional restrictions. Many teens are waiting until they are older to get their licenses, and older teens won't benefit from most of the new protective provisions, LaDoucer said.

Still, he said the new rules for the youngest drivers are a positive step.

"We're looking forward to having those rules put in place in order to provide the experience teens need to become safer drivers while, at the same time, putting some protections in place so they can gain that experience under less dangerous circumstances," LaDoucer said.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.

Teen Driving Statistics

-- In 2010, there were 30,970 teenage drivers, ages 14 through 19, in North Dakota.

-- Teenage drivers account for 6.35 percent of all licensed drivers in North Dakota.

-- Teen drivers were involved in 20.6 percent of crashes in 2010. This is a decrease from 21 percent in 2009.

-- For the past 10 years, teen drivers have been involved in an average of 23.2 percent of all crashes.

-- Teen drivers were involved in 25.2 percent of all injury crashes in 2010.

-- The highest number of teen driver crashes occurred in December.

-- Thirteen teen drivers were involved in fatal crashes in 2010.

-- On average, teen drivers were involved in 9.6 crashes per day.

-- Forty percent of teen driver crashes occurred on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

-- In 2010, five teen-driver fatal crashes occurred on Sunday.

-- Failure to yield was the most reported contributing factor for crashes involving teen drivers.

-- Speed and driving too fast for conditions accounted for 12.36 percent of the listed contributing factors for teen driver crashes.

-- Attention distracted by something inside the vehicle was listed as a contributing factor in 2.75 percent of crashes involving teen drivers.

Source: North Dakota 2010 Crash Summary, North Dakota Department of Transportation.