Following the deaths of four teenage football players this summer in a single-vehicle accident, New Jersey lawmakers are renewing a push for more behind-the-wheel training for new drivers.
The recommended changes would require new drivers to hold a learning permit longer and log more practice driving hours before getting to drive solo.
The state has some of the nation's toughest driving laws and uses a tiered licensing system.
Currently, teens can get a learner's permit at age 16, allowing them to drive under the supervision of a licensed adult after they complete a six-hour driving course. They must have a learner's permit for six months before they can apply for what's known as a graduated driver's license at age 17, which allows them to drive without a chaperone but with only one other person in the car, among other restrictions.
A bill approved Monday by the Assembly Transportation Committee would require that certified driving instruction be private and one-on-one; extend the permit phase from six months to one year for all new drivers up to age 21; and require all drivers under age 18 to have a parent or other adult complete an approved teen driver orientation program with the teen, either in person or online, before they can get a license.
Additionally, the state wants to require even more practice hours with a supervising adult sign a log of hours driven to show that the new driver has more behind-the-wheel experience.
"This legislation provides the missing pieces in New Jersey's teen driver safety puzzle," said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Sayreville, one of the bill sponsors and chairman of the committee. "Not only will these requirements produce better and safer teen drivers, they will help parents feel more at ease when their child gets behind the wheel alone for the first time."
The changes were recommended in a 2008 report by a commission created to study teen driver safety. Some of the other recommendations have already been implemented.
The legislation was introduced last session but faltered. It saw renewed interest following the death of four teenage football players in a single-vehicle accident over the summer. The driver, 17-year-old Casey Brenner, had a restricted license that allowed him to carry only one passenger unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Brenner was driving the carload of teammates from Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, near Atlantic City, to meet other players at a restaurant to celebrate the last practice of the summer before scrimmages were to start. The eight boys ranged in age from 15 to 17 and were crammed into a seven-seat SUV.
New Jersey has had a graduated driver's license program for a decade. It was revised in 2009 to limit the number of passengers in order to limit distractions for drivers who don't have a lot of experience on the road.
Denville Township police chief Christopher Wagner, who teaches driver safety courses, said extending the time required to have a learner's permit for one year will ensure that drivers are exposed to all weather conditions under supervision.
"Imagine if you get your permit in March or April ... you've never even driven in the snow" before being allowed to drive alone.
There are some concerns about the legislation, which must still pass the Assembly and state Senate.
Former New Jersey Highway Traffic Safety director Pam Fischer, who testified before the panel, said afterward that she objects to allowing the orientation class to be done online — something lawmakers wanted to help accommodate busy parents. There are currently no such online providers in the area, Fischer said, and the interaction among parents and young drivers, or parents among other parents, is better in person.
"That exchange is not going to happen online," Fischer said.