Provisional licenses needed for teen drivers

It’s easy to speculate about why so many teenagers die in crashes on Minnesota highways. Long winters filled with ice- and snow-covered roads might be one factor, and there’s no denying that as a large, agricultural state, Minnesota has a lot of 16-year-olds driving to school, work and basketball games.

As a northern state, our days are shorter, and teenagers are more likely to crash when driving after dark. Minnesota’s growing problem with binge drinking also could be playing a role.

But Minnesota Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, says there’s another reason Minnesota ranks No. 1 nationally in the percentage of fatal crashes that involve teenage drivers.

"We’re one of only four states that doesn’t have a provisional driver’s license for teens," said Norton, who has authored and introduced a bill that would change that.

Her proposal, which has made it through the House Transportation Policy Committee but hasn’t been voted on by the full House, targets a trend that has emerged nationwide over the past five years. The likelihood of young drivers being involved in accidents increases when there are others in the vehicle.


"The fatality rate for teen drivers goes up exponentially with passengers in the car," said Olmsted County Sheriff Steve Borchardt. "The research is coming back overwhelmingly that it’s a major factor."

Norton said she became aware of these studies last year and was appalled. "I started looking at those statistics, and I thought, ‘Oh, my heavens!’ Then, when I found out that we weren’t doing what most other states were, I thought ‘Let’s give it a shot.’"

Norton’s bill would limit the number of passengers novice drivers could have with them for the first year, and for the first six months after getting their licenses, young drivers would be prohibited from driving between midnight and 5 a.m.

There are, however, some exceptions to that last provision: 16- and 17-year-olds could drive to and from a late-night or early morning job; they could drive to and from school activities; and they could drive after midnight if a 25-year-old licensed driver accompanied them.

Norton says she isn’t thrilled by these exceptions — really, should a 16-year-old be coming home from work at midnight? — but they were politically necessary.

"We have, in Minnesota, a pretty strong Libertarian streak in both parties," she said. "Folks who’ve carried a similar bill before in the Legislature said these were some of the arguments that helped block it. This is an attempt to accommodate those objections so we can get something passed and start saving lives."

Even with these concessions, Norton said she doesn’t expect easy passage of her bill, because legislators will argue "This is too much regulation." And Rep. Bruce Anderson, a Republican from Buffalo, last year introduced a provisional driver’s license bill that would let parents trump the law by signing an "opt out" form for their teenage drivers.

The two bills will have to be reconciled before a final vote in the House, and we’d argue that the "opt out" provision would render the law practically unenforceable. Norton’s bill is solid as-is, and she wrote it to match a bill that’s essentially ready for a final vote in the Senate.


If national trends hold true in Minnesota, a provisional license law could reduce teen fatalities and serious injuries in Minnesota by up to 40 percent. And if that means a few more parents have to go pick up their kids after a basketball game or wrestling meet, so be it.

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