Ronnie Polaneczky: Teen safe-driving bill gets kicked to a dark curb

THERE'S AN old story about futility that goes like this:

It's early evening, and a man is searching a patch of sidewalk for his keys.

"Where did you drop them?" asks a passer-by.

"Across the street," the man says.

"So why are you looking for them here?" the passer-by asks.

"The light's better," says the man.

I'm reminded of that story when I think about what's going on with PA House Bill 67.

As passed by the House, it called for smart, common-sense restrictions on teen-driving - the kind that are saving lives in states that have similar laws.

But when HB67 went to the Senate for approval, it was gutted of nearly everything that made it such a good bill in the first place.

The amended document has now bounced back to the House for approval.

There are enough House members who will want to vote "yes" on this bill because it does contain a few good things.

"The amended bill is better than no bill," they'll say.

Except it actually is worse than no bill, because it gives only the illusion of truly applying to law all that we know about the realities of teen driving.

Just the way that searching on the wrong side of the street gives that hapless man only the illusion that he might find his keys.


 

In its original version, HB67 limited teen drivers to carrying just one nonfamily passenger younger than age 18.

That's because studies have shown, indisputably, that a teen driver's risk of a fatal crash increases fivefold when two or more teen passengers are in the car with him.

In the amended version, teen drivers who've gone the first six months without causing an accident would be allowed to transport up to three nonfamily passengers younger than 18.

On the face of it, it seems like a reasonable change, one that rewards safe teen drivers by expanding their privileges.

The problem is, what if the teens went without an accident precisely because they weren't distracted by other teens in the car? Wouldn't adding other teens into the mix be counterproductive?

The original bill also expanded from 50 to 65 the number of behind-the-wheel driving hours that teens must have before they can get a license. At least 10 must occur at night, and at least five in inclement weather.

Seems like a no-brainer, yes?

The Senate kicked all of it to the curb. So the first time that a new teen driver encounters, say, ice, he could be on his own, without the benefit of an experienced driver to guide him.

Do you want this kid behind you on I-95?

Finally, the original bill made it a primary offense for teen drivers to use cell phones or other interactive devices behind the wheel. The amended version makes it a secondary offense - in which a teen could be cited only after he'd been stopped for some other offense.

Like driving badly on ice, perhaps.


 

So HB67, as amended by the Senate, doesn't deserve a "yes" vote from the House, by any reasonable argument.

The trouble is, a "no" could end the possibility of any good teen-driving law being passed during this legislative session.

And we desperately need one to be.

That's why the bill's sponsor, Rep. Joseph F. Markosek, D-Allegheny, majority chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is lobbying his colleagues for a rare vote of "nonconcurrence."

That's a fancy way of saying that the vote would send HB67 to a conference committee for one more look-see from both sides, to figure out if there's a way to rework it into something that actually might save lives.

The vote was to be called yesterday but was delayed by budget talks. A spokesman for Markosek says the vote will likely happen today or tomorrow.

If you agree that HB67 is too important to pass in haste, simply to get it done, let your House rep know that you want a vote of nonconcurrence.

It'll give everyone a chance to get to the same side of the street.

To find your House rep, go to

http:// www. house.state.pa.us/

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ ronnieblog.