Illinois’ New Teen Driver Laws Explained

An article featured in the October issue of The Community Word outlined the potential pitfalls teen drivers face and the requirements for the state’s graduated licensing system. On August 20 of this year, Governor Blagojevich signed a law that tightens the restrictions imposed on young drivers with the intention of making teenagers more responsible drivers. This new law triples the amount of time a teen is required to have a learner’s permit, imposes a stricter curfew, and requires more instructor-supervised street driving.

Statistics and studies show that teen drivers have a higher rate of accidents and traffic fatalities than any other age group. Teen drivers who are between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely to cause an accident than an older and more experienced driver. More than 8,000 people are killed and 700,000 injured by teenage auto accidents each year, accounting for $40 billion in damages and medical costs. In 2005, over 6,000 young people, ages 15 to 20, died in motor vehicle crashes. In fact, automobile accidents are the leading cause of death among people 15 to 20; the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says one-third of all deaths in that age range are caused by motor vehicle accidents. Teen drivers make up 6 percent of Illinois drivers, but they account for 16 percent of all crash fatalities in the state.

States that impose a comprehensive teen driving program tend to experience lower crash rates and see a drop in teen driving fatalities. A July study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed stricter guidelines and driving curfews reduce the number of traffic fatalities among 16-year-old drivers by 20 percent. North Carolina had one of the first strict graduated licensing programs in the country, and the number of crashes involving 16 year olds decrease by 60 percent in the first year. In recent years both California and Maryland saw the number of crashes for drivers ages 15 to 17 decrease by 5 percent after beginning a comprehensive and strict licensing system. Maryland also reported a 10 percent decrease in convictions for drivers age 16 to 17.

Even with the knowledge surrounding teenage driving, the education program in Illinois has long been considered sub par.

Illinois currently requires teen drivers to have a learner’s permit for three months, which is one of the shortest mandatory periods in the country. Forty-five states require a longer “holding” period, with the national average being six months.

Additionally, many driving education programs across the country require six hours of instructor-supervised street driving. This is currently a requirement in Illinois, but a Chicago Tribune study found that students only average 1 hour and 40 minutes to 3 hours of supervised drive time, all well below the required six hours. Illinois allows students to supplement instructor-supervised street driving with simulators and driving courses set up in parking lots. If a teen uses a driving simulator, only three hours of supervised on-the-road training must be completed, and if a driving range is used, then stu dents only need an hour of supervised street driving. This standard is the second most lenient in the country, only behind Florida.

Teens are often taught using simulators and driving ranges due to the high cost of individual road training. One instructor can supervise up to twenty students on simulators or ten students on a driving range, whereas instructors on the road can only take two or three students per car.

In an effort to create stronger and more effective driving laws, Secretary of State Jesse White created a 27-member task force last August that is composed of educators, judges, law enforcement officials, legislators, and traffic safety experts. The group was created to focus on ways to reduce the number of auto accidents and fatalities among teens. Jesse White explained why he created the task force: “While Illinois’ law already contains many of the components that are believed to reduce traffic fatalities for these young drivers, we want to make sure that we take every reasonable step possible to save more lives. These young people are our future leaders and we want to protect them so they have the opportunity to grow up and fulfill their aspirations.”

In December 2006, the task force submitted recommendations on new ways to make teens more prepared when obtaining their licenses. Legislators worked with the recommendations and proposed a bill to the Illinois House, which was passed unanimously in May. Just last month, Governor Blagojevich signed the bill that affects about 300,000 Illinois teen drivers.

Under the new driving law, teens will be required to posses a learner’s permit for at least nine months, an increase from the current three months. Before obtaining a license, drivers with a learner’s permit must have no violations for nine months, and drivers 16 and 17 years old need to have a clean record for at least 6 months before obtaining an unrestricted license.

In response to studies that show teenage fatalities are three times higher from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., driving curfews will be imposed an hour earlier. Curfews are now 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Sunday-Thursday and 12:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. Friday and Saturday, but will begin at 10:00 p.m. on weekdays and 11:00 p.m. on weekends. Exceptions to the curfew include having a parent in the car; doing an errand for a parent; and driving to and from work, school, or a religious activity.

Currently, teens are only allowed one passenger who is under the age of 20 (excluding immediate family members) during the first six months of having a license. The new laws increase this timeframe to 12 months after obtaining a drivers license and allows the passengers who violate this law to be ticketed.

The new driving law also states that students must complete the full six hours of instructor-supervised on-the-road driving. Simulators or driving courses are no longer allowed to supplement the six-hour requirement.

These changes will go into effect January 1, 2008, except for the six-hour instructor-supervised street-driving requirement, which will go into effect July 1, 2008. Legislators pushed back that deadline to give schools more time to acquire enough funding to meet the conditions.