North Dakota Keeps Substandard Teen Driving Law Against Opposition

North Dakota is not a populous state, though money is pouring in from oil. But old attitudes die hard in the state and perhaps that is why driver education programs lag behind those of every other state in the union.

Drivers there don't face a graduated license program; in fact, teens as young as 14 and a half can begin using vehicles. Families in the agricultural sector have long hailed the regulations. It allows them to focus on farming while children drive themselves to school and run needed errands. Not enough of them believe that it needs to change.

That's the wrong understanding, according to State Representative Ed Gruchalla. A 25-year highway patrol veteran, he's seen two licensing programs fail in the last two years, even though he knows they save lives.

"If you worked in the business like I did, you remember these things, and we need to keep that in people's focus so they don't forget," he said in a report picked up by Newstex. The latest program would have cost about $360,000, or three times the cost of medical bills incurred by just one family who had a teenager maimed in a traffic accident.

He is just one vocal opponent of the status quo; doctors have argued for more stringent legislation to reduce the number of teenagers with graphic injuries they see. But the less populated areas don't see it the same way as the medical professionals do.

Driving education teachers in the state are also concerned about the age, and even size of the potential motorists they see in their classrooms. One told KFYR-TV that he was nervous because some of his students were so small that they couldn't see over the steering wheel.

"A lot of young drivers just lack a lot of confidence," Steve Dangel went on to say. "I think it’s very important just because of the experience they're going to gain. At that age that's the biggest thing they need."

While permits allow teens the chance to drive with a permit after driver education programs for six months before they get their license, that still means that North Dakota drivers can gain full privileges as early as age 15.

The percentage of accidents attributed to drivers aged 16-19 is far higher than their share of the population, and the statistics don't even count the extra year that North Dakotans have on the road.

Parents who need their children to take advantage of the law as it currently stands should know that the federal government may raise the permit age to 16, with a full license only possible at 18. Even if that doesn't come to fruition, they may want to take more time with their teens to limit the problems that Dangel and Gruchalla have noted.

Increased focus on how to deal with potential mudslides and other rural driving concerns may help North Dakota's teens safe; but many are hopeful that the laws will change enough that more drivers have time on the road with limited responsibilities.