Teen drivers face new restrictions on Jan. 1

TOPEKA — Elizabeth Hunt and her 16-year-old son, Ryan Hunt, plan to hit the driver's exam station this week.

After Jan. 1, teen drivers will face more rules on when they can drive and who can be in the car with them, but those in the system by the end of this year will fall under the current rules.

"We expect it to be pretty busy there," said the Wichita mother. "But we want to get in before the deadline."

Hunt said she understands the new rules are an attempt to make teens safer drivers, but she is feeling the pressure from her son to get it done now.

"Yeah, all my friends are getting theirs now," Ryan said. "I really don't want to be the only one without it."

The Hunts aren't the only family hustling to get their teen driver a license or permit.

"We're seeing a lot of kids coming in... a lot of parents rushing those kids in here because they want to get the kids those license or permits," said Noni Stuart, public service administrator for Wichita Division of Motor Vehicles.

Some parents, like Hunt, have said they are bringing their teenagers in specifically so they will fall under the old laws, she said.

After Jan. 1, 16-year-old drivers will face restrictions for at least the first six months behind the wheel. Currently, 16-year-olds can get an unrestricted license.

Teens will still be able to get a learner's permit at 14, but the law increases restrictions on when they can drive and who can be in the car.

Danielle Simon, 14, took the exam for her driving permit Thursday but missed too many questions to pass. She said she is going to take it again soon.

"I'm going to study a lot and then ask my mom to take me back," she said.

Her mother, Janet Simon, of Wichita, said she appreciates what the government is trying to achieve with the new regulations, but she doesn't think it's necessary.

"I already planned on spending a lot of time teaching Danielle how to be safe," she said. "I don't think the extra six months would really make a difference."

The rules are intended to give inexperienced drivers more supervised time behind the wheel to learn how to safely handle a vehicle, said Pete Bodyk, manager of traffic safety for Kansas Department of Transportation.

"The goal is to make it safer for everyone on the road," he said.

The new rules also bar teens from using cell phones or other wireless devices while driving.

Kansas is the 49th state to increase the restrictions on teen drivers. Only North Dakota has not taken similar steps.

The most significant changes to the law include restrictions on the number of passengers teen drivers can carry and rules barring them from driving after 9 p.m., Bodyk said.

Fewer young passengers means young drivers will be less distracted, and prohibiting late-night driving can help prevent more serious crashes, Bodyk said.

"Teens think we are picking on them, but just the opposite is true," said Darlene Whitlock, trauma prevention coordinator for Stormont-Vail Healthcare in Topeka.

Whitlock, who is also the president-elect of the Kansas Emergency Nurses Association, said most nurses working in emergency rooms have seen the toll of inexperienced drivers firsthand.

While teen drivers make up 7 percent of people operating a vehicle, they are involved in 20 percent of the recorded crashes and 30 percent of the fatal crashes, said Jim Hanni, executive vice president of AAA Kansas during a recent press event promoting the new law.