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Teen safety program now illegal





State curfew puts brakes on students' late-night rides home


By Tara Malone

Tribune staff reporter

6:33 AM CST, January 12, 2008


A program that for nearly 15 years offered North Shore teenagers a safe ride home on weekend nights has been forced to hang up its car keys, grounded by a new set of laws intended to keep teen drivers safe.


Illinois' sweeping overhaul of teen driving laws, which took effect Jan. 1, moved the weekend curfew for young drivers back to 11 p.m. to get them off the roads at the most dangerous times.


But those were precisely the hours of greatest demand for Safe Rides, a program run by New Trier High School teens under the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America. Now unable to offer the vast majority of free rides requested -- it gave more than 1,200 teens a lift home last year -- Safe Rides is on hiatus.


The law change also tabled plans to bring similar programs to Evanston, Glenview and Lincolnshire, said Jeff Brooks, a district chairman with the Boy Scouts who coordinates the New Trier program.


"We knew it may have a large effect on us, we just didn't know how large it was really going to be," said Ricky Dyer, 17, a Winnetka senior who leads Safe Rides.


This weekend will be the first with the program shut down. Most calls for a ride come after midnight, making it impractical to operate if students cannot respond after 11 p.m., organizers said.


The comprehensive law also tripled the length of a learner's permit, tightened passenger restrictions and increased training hours behind the wheel, all risk factors in crashes that kill an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 teens annually. The sweeping overhaul ranked Illinois' laws among the most far-reaching nationwide.


Organizers cling to the hope that state lawmakers will open a loophole allowing Safe Rides to rev back up.


On Friday, Dyer and co-president Jana Orenstein, 16, a junior from Glencoe, discussed the hiatus with their classmates during morning announcements.


"Efforts are currently being made to amend the legislation to allow organizations like Safe Rides to operate. ... We hope to be up and running in February," their statement read.


Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat, this week alerted area police chiefs that he plans to push for an exemption from the weekend curfew. Exceptions already exist for school- and work-related activities. Schoenberg said he wants to extend the waiver to approved non-profit organizations with liability insurance, such as Safe Rides.


One of the new law's architects, Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago), and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White said they support such a change.


Some transportation experts worry such waivers risk weakening the law. Lawmakers and program organizers alike said they oppose any measure that would "take out the teeth" of the graduated driver's license bill.


"Exceptions create situations where kids can take advantage of a law," said John Ulczycki, transportation safety director with the Itasca-based National Safety Council. Still, he said, the idea merits a hearing. "Kids are very creative at coming up with programs that help themselves, and I've learned to listen to them," he said.


Created in 1994, the New Trier Township program trains sophomores, juniors and seniors to give a ride home to any teen who needs it, whether because of alcohol or social discomfort. Six of every 10 calls come because a teenager had too much to drink, Brooks said.


Under adult supervision, teens field calls, dispatch cars and do the driving every Friday and Saturday night. In the youth center of the Kenilworth Union Church, which doubles as the group's headquarters, a student checks every caller's name with the address listed in New Trier's directory to ensure they are taken home and not to another gathering. With that confirmed, a driver and navigator head out in every car. Each team consists of a boy and a girl.


Neither Kenilworth Union Church nor New Trier High School sponsors the program. The Boy Scouts of America shoulder the responsibility entirely for the New Trier program and others nationwide.


Through its Venturing division, the Boy Scouts teaches teens how to glean the necessary information -- where the callers live, what they are wearing, how they can be reached -- avoid trouble on the road and identify symptoms of alcohol poisoning. The national organization also provides liability insurance.


Nearly two dozen teens report for evening duty just after 10 p.m. on any given weekend. Students chat over a shared pizza, play table tennis or watch TV.


Come 11:15 p.m., when most calls begin flooding in, they settle into well-rehearsed roles. Sophomores typically answer calls, keeping a log of every request. The program guarantees anonymity to callers. Juniors, who may not yet be eligible to drive, often ride along to navigate or call back to headquarters for the next pickup. Drivers must be at least 17 and have at least a year's experience behind the wheel. Each team transports one student at a time, and they only take kids home. Depending on the night, the wait can stretch to 30 minutes or an hour.


"Sometimes you just have to say, 'we're not there to get you home by your curfew. We're there to get you home safe.' That is our main objective," Dyer said.


Things rarely slow down until 2 a.m.


With a reserve of nearly 200 volunteers, most students work five or six nights a year. They wear badges signed by Brooks that tag them as volunteers. Such identifiers come in handy if the volunteers encounter police officers.


"To my knowledge, there's never been a concern on the part of a Winnetka police officer about their operations," Winnetka Deputy Police Chief Patrick Kreis said. "What we have done is make sure our staff is aware of the operation."


The program is not without critics. Opponents often charge the service implicitly condones teen drinking by offering a consequence-free safety net. They say the service undercuts the fact that underage drinking is a crime. Others say it makes taxi drivers of student volunteers who assume tremendous responsibility in dealing with peers who may be inebriated.


Brooks acknowledges the operation may cloud the issue of underage alcohol use. Still, he contends it confronts the reality of teen drinking with an organized program that allows students to help one another.


"It's the wrong decision, obviously, but if teenagers choose to drink anyway, it's important they are safe about it," Orenstein said.

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From the articles I've read (both here and on the Belleville News-Democrat's website) it sounds to me like the program might have technically been illegal to begin with. It talks about the driving curfew being moved up to 11PM instead of midnight. They already said that they are driving until as late at 2AM.


Also, there are exceptions to the driving curfew. This, in my opinion, would be a good exception and it is possible it will be granted an exception. The Secretary of State Jesse White apparently supports the program.



This isn't the only new law that blocks what could be seen as a good thing. There are multiple universities in the state of Illinois who have research involving quitting smoking and such. Well, as a part of the studies, the participants must smoke in a ventilated room. According to new state law, it is illegal to smoke inside public buildings.


Our wonderful state government:)

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Yah, da question is whether the generation-war-on-kids puttin' more restrictions on youth drivers has any merit in the first place.


Accident rate for folks over 70 is pretty darn high, eh? When are we gonna start seein' restrictions on night driving?


Fact is, there are lots and lots of teens who are better drivers than many adults. Somethin' over 90% of the DUI fatalities are caused by adults. Anybody who's ever worked EMS in an area can tell yeh when the bars get out on the weekends. Puttin' an adult driving curfew on would save a heck of a lot more lives than one for teens. And if we can save just one life... well, than any restriction on liberty is worth it.


I'm reminded of the old yarn "they came for the young people, but I was not a young person, so I did nothing... and then they came for me."




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We have had a similar law in place in MA. for several years now and it had signgicantly cut down on the number of teenage driving fatalities. While it doesn't remove the adult drunk driver from the road, at least the teens are not out on the roads with them.


"Accident rate for folks over 70 is pretty darn high, eh? When are we gonna start seein' restrictions on night driving? " There are state, FL for example, that do impose some form of competency testing, visual or otherwise for drivers over a certain age. More state are likely to follow.


While the program in question may have merit, I'm not sure I like the idea of "Six of every 10 calls come because a teenager had too much to drink, Brooks said. " I was very happy to either have my sons home by curfew or a call from a friends house or to go get them. The last thing I would want is to have my teenage driver out 'til 2:00am or so, providing taxi services to other drunken teenagers, while other drunk adult drivers are on the road, no matter how nobel the intent.





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We have had a similar law in place in MA. for several years now and it had signgicantly cut down on the number of teenage driving fatalities.


Yeh could cut down a lot more on teenage driving fatalities if yeh just prohibited anyone under 21 from driving at all.


Fact is, folks over 40 slowly lose their ability to multi-task, their reaction time slows, and their visual acuity slowly declines. I can attest to that ;). We could reduce fatalities by placin' gradually increasing restrictions on us.


I'm very, very wary of any "safety" law that specifically targets one segment of the population just because they don't have the demographic/voting strength to oppose it. Doesn't matter whether it's age or race or gender or creed or someone who really enjoys an odd hobby like flying airplanes or shooting guns. Seems... dirty. Contrary to American values.




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"I'm very, very wary of any "safety" law that specifically targets one segment of the population just because they don't have the demographic/voting strength to oppose it."


Well we are talking about minors here and the privileges of driving. Not quite the same as say, US citizens that want to talk to family members overseas on the phone without the government secretly listening.


The libertarian in me agrees with you, the parent in me was glad to have a law like this in place, although in MA the curfew was midnight and applied to drivers under the age of 17 for the most part.







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Yah, I think da question that anybody should ask before imposin' new restrictions on another group is "would it be OK if they did it to me?".


Have another baby boom, perhaps from expanded "legal" immigration, to move the votin' strength back to young folks. Are you ready for them to impose driving restrictions on anyone over 65? We're talking seniors here. People who are no longer contributing to their own welfare but are being paid for with our social security and Medicare taxes. People who have clearly diminished reaction time and multitasking ability, plus much higher risk of health-related driving complications. People responsible for tens of thousands of accidents a year.


Scary stuff, eh?


Seems to me as parents we should be able to manage settin' rules for our own kids without needing the state to do it for us. ;) Can't see as it's my business to set rules for somebody else's kids. Know plenty of teens who do their homework early, then help in the family business in the late evening, trying to keep the family afloat or save money for college.


We're gonna tell 'em they can't do that, because old folks are prejudiced and think such a lad drivin' home at night is more worth restricting than a bar-hopping adult? Or some parent can't be bothered to set a restriction on their own kid and wants the government to do it instead?


Just feels...ugly, and unAmerican. :)




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According to the NHTSA, on the basis of miles driven, teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as are all drivers. The factors involved in teen driving fatalities include inexperience, greater risk-taking behavior and immaturity, and greater risk exposure (teens often drive at night with other teens in the vehicle, factors that increase crash risk).


Teen drivers are different from other drivers, and their crash experience is different. Compared to other drivers, a higher proportion of teenagers are responsible for their fatal crashes because of their own driving errors.


About one third of teen drivers killed in 2006 had been drinking and 25 percent had a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher. Contrary to prior posts, extrapolating this based on the number of miles driven, it seems that teens are just as likely to be involved in an alcohol related fatality as any other age group.


Driving is not a liberty, it is a privilege.(This message has been edited by MarkS)

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I'm still deciding how I feel about the idea of this program. But one thing that did surprise me was the notion of having teens responsible for driving other drunken teens around, late at night. If it were my child, while I would applaud his desire to help his classmates, I don't think I'd want him driving in that situation. But that's just me.


Maybe the motivation for the program is good but the mechanics need another look. I'd really rather have teen groups raising money to pay for all night taxi rides or something along those lines. Some college groups help to fund "party buses" that provide safe rides home from bars on big-drinking nights and while not without its problems, that seems like a better model than asking teens to take physical responsibility for their wasted peers. However, in more rural areas I guess that's not very practical either.

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I have to agree Lisa. The program does seem to promote a common teen driving risk and other solutions that don't would be preferred. Teens are twice as likely to have an accident at night as during the day.


3+ years before I have to worry about my oldest driving... probably less for worrying about him riding in a vehicle with a teen driver.(This message has been edited by MarkS)

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Yah, MarkS, yeh miss the point, eh?


Yeh can always find some reason to restrict the liberty of "those people." There's always gonna be some study in support of it. Real data even.


Males are more likely to be involved in car crashes than females. Are we ready to prohibit men from driving, or put extra restrictions on men?


People with higher levels of education are substantially less likely to be in accidents. Are we ready to deny driving licenses to anyone who doesn't have a college degree?


Dare I mention the differences in driving accident rates on a per-mile basis by race?


Are we ready to deny individuals liberty based on a higher statistical risk for groups?


Driving is a privilege, eh? ;) If we can save one life, isn't that worth it? IMO, that's a very, very scary road to take the nation down. Even scarier that folks don't recognize it.


I'm all for parents makin' decisions about their own kid. I sure did. Parents have first-hand knowledge and judgment of their child. But when it's the government making a decision for a group of people as a class? Count me among the opposition almost all of the time.


Yah, I wonder how many teens are likely to die in Illinois as a result of this policy, eh? Most young people who get in trouble or screw up aren't all that likely to call an adult. Dat's the reason for the peer-driven programs.




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No Beavah, I think you're missing the point. Graduated driving privileges save a significant number of young lives by reducing teen crash fatalities--ranging from 11 to 32 percent for novice drivers in states implementing them according to insurance industry studies. We're not talking about a single life nor are we talking about liberties here at all.


Look at it this way, enough kids die in fatal crashes each year to represent about one third of all the boys earning Eagle Scout each year... 5,000 to 6,000 deaths compared 17,000 Eagle Scouts.


I'd call saving between 500 and 2,000 lives a year, worth getting home a couple hours earlier (certainly better than not at all).(This message has been edited by MarkS)

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While graduated driving laws may reduce fatalities, there is little evidence that earlier curfews or older age requirements for driving do. New drivers (no matter the age) are worse drivers, so stopping young people from driving, simply means that they will have the fatalities later in life. This is the same as with raising the drinking age to 21, doing so reduced alchohol fatalities for 18-21, but raised the number of fatalities for 21-24.

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