House committee kills two teen driving bills, passes two more (updated)

An alliance of urban conservatives and rural lawmakers defeated two proposed restrictions on 14 and 15 year old drivers Tuesday, while two more passed.

Rejected on concerns about government overreach and inconvenience to rural families were a restriction on the number of passengers young drivers could have, and a six-month extension in the amount of time before 14-year-olds can get a permit to drive without an instructor.

“We have eight kids, and they were all driving by the time they were 7 or 8 years old,” said Rep. Dean Schrempp, D-Lantry. “If the parents would just work a little bit with these kids, they’d be ready to drive at an earlier age.”

Rep. Lee Qualm, R-Platte, said his kids also started driving at age eight. The burden, Qualm said, should be on parents to know when their children are capable of driving alone.

The limitation on passengers had exemptions for family members and for trips to and from school and school events in an attempt to satisfy rural concerns. But Rep. Kyle Schoenfish, R-Scotland, worried limiting passengers would just lead to more inexperienced teen drivers on the road.

Rep. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs, argued in forceful terms that the bill went too far limiting individual’s rights to do what they want with their vehicles, including letting their kids drive with passengers.

“If they’d had enough cars in the Soviet Union in Stalin’s time, he probably would have thought this a really good idea,” Russell said.

Supporters of the two bills had argued they would help save lives.

“These are the times we make decisions that will save one or two or three families next year,” said Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls.

Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, said two issues above all contribute to teen drivers getting into accidents: “youth and distraction.”

Statistics distributed at Tuesday’s committee hearing said traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers — even those who aren’t driving themselves. Two-thirds of South Dakota teens who die in car crashes were passengers while another teen was driving, according to a lobbyist for State Farm Insurance.

Rep. Peggy Gibson, D-Huron and a strong supporter of the teen driving proposals, said she will try to revive the six-month delay, but is giving up for this year on the passenger limit due to lack of support.

After the hearing, Gibson and other supporters were angry.

“This committee has just made a sham of our work,” said Gibson, who helped draft the bills as part of a teen driving task force. “I’m disappointed and I’m embarrassed by the ignorance of some of the comments that were made today.”

Gibson accused opponents of the two proposals of prioritizing convenience over safety. She referred to the remarks of Rep. Dennis Feickert, D-Aberdeen, who said his brother would have to “take time from his important work on the farm to see to it that his (14-year-old) son is able to participate in activities in the school he goes to in the fall” if the bills passed.

“How do they get to school right now?” Gibson said. “We’re talking about convenience over saving lives.”

Russell, however, said the supporters of the bill hadn’t made the case that these changes were necessary.

“I just have not heard compelling testimony that we need to change what we’re doing in this state and dramatically restrict those young people who, like my son, are more than capable of, within a just a few weeks, I think, to have a full license,” Russell said.

Though two teen driving bills were defeated Tuesday, the House Transportation Committee passed a third — a ban on cell phone use by 14- and 15-year old drivers.

Unlike a proposed ban on texting while driving for all drivers currently awaiting a hearing in the House, this bill would include all use of cell phones and other mobile communications devices by those young drivers.

By preventing young drivers from the distraction of texting or talking on their cell phones, advocates said they could prevent accidents.

“I’d hate to be a law enforcement officer in this instance, because I think it’s going to be tough to enforce, but I think it’s a very important move,” said Feickert.

A fourth bill, standardizing statewide driver’s education, also passed the committee — but with an amendment appropriating $50,000 to pay for the effort. Supporters called that an attempt to defeat the bill, because bills appropriating money need more votes to pass, and said they would try to remove it on the House floor.

All four bills were proposed by a task force created by the Legislature to study teen driving in South Dakota.