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A little less license 

If there's one drawback to the new teen driver law that goes into effect July 31, Bernard Allbright says, it's that it will put more teens on the road.

But the good done by Act 394 — which restricts passenger numbers and imposes a curfew — will far outweigh that fact, the Little Rock driving instructor says.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death in teen-agers 15 and up, according to Centers for Disease Control figures. More than half of those fatalities are at night. Teen drivers are dangerous to others, as well: in Arkansas, more than one in five traffic fatalities — 130 in 2007 — involves a teen-aged driver.

Those are the stats that a legislative committee heard in February as it took up SB 309, sponsored by state Sen. Jimmy Jeffress of Crossett. Jeffress was motivated to sponsor the bill, he told the Times, by the automobile deaths of two teen-aged girls who were his daughter's friends. “I know without a doubt that had my daughter been living in Crossett,” he said, “she would have been in that car and been killed.”

Act 394 adds new restrictions to the graduated driver's license law enacted in 1999: Teens with intermediate licenses — kids between the ages of 16 and 18 who've passed the driving test — may not drive with more than one “unrelated” passenger unless accompanied by a licensed driver age 21 or more. That, Janae Campbell of Fort Smith told a reporter, means her 16-year-old “can't take friends to go golfing.” It also puts an end to double dates in that age group.

The law also prohibits teens with intermediate licenses from driving between the hours of 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. unless accompanied by a licensed driver age 21 or more.

Other exceptions to the new rules: Travel to or from church, school or jobs. Police officers who enforce the law will no doubt find a big jump in church attendance among the 16-to-18 age group.

Another new law, Act 247, restricts the use of cellphones. Kids with learner's permits (available at age 14; teens must be accompanied by a licensed adult) and intermediate permits may not use cell phones. Drivers age 18 to 21 may not use hand-held cell phones, but they may use hands-free phones. Act 247 does not become effective until Oct. 1. A fine of $50 will be imposed on second and subsequent offenses.

Jeffress would like to enact another restriction — to make kids wait until they're 15 to get a learner's permit — but the legislature has rejected previous attempts to do that. Jeffress said to get the bill passed this year he had water it down by making the new restrictions not retroactive; teens who hold learner's or intermediate permits before July 31 will be exempted from the law (licenses have issuance dates). After that date, however, parents will be able to tell their new drivers that they have to be home by 11 p.m. and not just because they said so.

Little Rock teens who plan to abide by the city's curfew ordinance will be home by 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday anyway. (They've got to be off the streets by midnight Friday and Saturday.) Lt. Terry Hastings, spokesman for the Little Rock police, said teen drivers out past 11 p.m. aren't likely to be stopped “unless they're doing something that attracts our attention.”

“New drivers are a liability to everybody,” Allbright, an instructor for Thompson Driving School, said. They don't need the distraction of other kids in the car. Because he knows that better than most, Allbright operates with an abundance of caution: He made his daughter, who was licensed and owned her own car, take driver's ed at age 18, after she'd seen seven friends die in car wrecks over a two-year period.

Sam Allbright, 14, Bernard Allbright's son, got his learner's permit last week. When the Times talked to him, he'd given his mother “a little bit of a scare” only once — but then, he'd only driven twice.

Sam figures that when he's 16 and eligible for an intermediate license he won't mind abiding by the new law, “if it's helping other people [stay safe]. … I'll just be glad when I can get out,” he said.

Bernard Allbright is going to make sure his son is safe behind the wheel.

“He will not even drive in a car by himself until I know I could fall asleep in the passenger's seat,” he said.

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