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Fatal traffic accidents involving teenagers stir the emotions in many of us. Unfortunately, those emotions often lead someone in the Illinois Legislature to propose changing the drivers license restrictions for teens, too.

It's happening again this year, based on the death of two teens in a crash in the Chicago area.

The two-part proposal would move the minimum age requirement for a driver from 16 to 18 and double the number of hours behind the wheel with a responsible adult from 25 to 50 hours.

The 16-year-old minimum should not be changed.

The minimum in Illinois is already 18, but there are so many "exceptions" that most people think the minimum is 16. The most used exceptions are students who take formal drivers education classes or those who are "certified" by their parents as having adequate behind-the-wheel experience. All have to pass written and driving exams through the Secretary of State's Office.

Increasing "training" hours would be more effective than increasing the minimum age. Even that is questionable. The state can verify formal driver education classes through high schools or private firms. But teens are eligible for a license if a parent or responsible adult verifies the teen has had at least 25 hours of driving time and has had an instruction permit for at least three months. In other words, the 25 hours can be based on Mom and Dad's word.

In addition to increasing the minimum hours behind the wheel, we suggest that a person between the ages of 16 and 18 have his/her learner's permit for a minimum of six months.

"Immaturity" is often given as a reason for increasing the age limit. And an observation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is usually used: The risk for drivers is highest at age 16. What do they expect? They are the least experienced drivers, another of the leading causes of teen-driver fatalities cited by the Insurance Institute.

If the limit were 18, the same risk would then be assessed to those inexperienced 18-year-old drivers.

In most statistics, the Insurance Institute lumps 16- to 19-year-olds together. The figures show a need for obvious concern for teenagers and vehicles: 86 percent of teen deaths in 2004 were in vehicles; teens make up 10 percent of the population, but 13 percent of fatalilties.

So, we share the concern about teenage driving. But moving the minimum to 18 without exceptions would be the highest of any state within the United States. And we don't think teens in Illinois are much different than those in other states.

However, there are regional differences that sometimes escape Chicago-area lawmakers who introduce bills to change drivers license requirements.

Boosting the age limit might not have the same impact in Chicago because that area has pretty reliable mass transit service well into the evening in a compact area. That's not the case Downstate.

Teens are involved in sports and other extracurricular activities at school, activities that often don't mesh with the hours of working parents. So they need independent transportation.

Many teens also have part-time jobs that require trips across town, or from one community into another - areas not served 24/7 by public transportation, if at all. Working parents also often depend on children to drive younger siblings to their various activities. Drivers licenses for teens Downstate are often major conveniences for families.

Let's continue to emphasize safe driving to teens - and all other drivers for that matter - but leave the minimum age at 16.


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