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U.S. Lawmakers Weigh Putting Brakes on State Age Limits for Teen Drivers

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Getting their first driver's license is a seminal moment in the lives of most teenagers. But the federal government -- not the states -- could soon be telling kids when they can get behind the wheel. 

Supporters say it will save lives; opponents say it's another example of Washington overreaching its powers and getting involved in the states' business.

"I'm sure there are some people who back these kinds of things that tend to believe they're going to do something good," Michael Boldin, founder of the Tenth Amendment Center, told FoxNews.com. "Are the car crashes caused because Washington, D.C., wasn't giving rules to people? I find that nearly laughable."

Car crashes are the No. 1 killer of teens in the country. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said he believes thousands of lives will be saved by creating a uniform national system of youth driving laws, called The Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act or STANDUP.

The proposed bill calls for the government to set nationwide standards for licensing teen drivers. Under the proposed federal guidelines, age 16 is the earliest a learner's permit would be issued, and an unrestricted license couldn't be issued until age 18. 

Even then, an unrestricted license can be delayed if the driver has any issues with driving under the influence of alcohol, misrepresenting his or her age, speeding, driving recklessly or not wearing a seatbelt. STANDUP's guidelines also make it illegal for teens to drive at night, have more than one non-family passenger under the age of 21 or talk or text on a cell phone while driving.

Currently, each state sets its own process for teens to get their license. Fourteen-year-olds in North and South Dakota, for example, can drive with an adult for the first six months of driving with a learner's permit. After those six months they're able to get a full license, meaning they don't need an adult in the car. Four other states allow teens to drive without an adult before they turn 16, and 43 states allow it at 16.

New Jersey, which has some of the strictest driving policies, doesn't allow young drivers to hit the road on their own until they turn 17.

Under the proposed rules, each state will have a three-year window to bring their driving policies in line with the federal standards or face losing up to 10 percent of their federal highway funding.

To keep those federal funds, states will need to establish a standard three-stage licensing process for teens; each stage consisting of supervised driving and progressively fewer driving restrictions.

Boldin says individual states can decide what's better for their children than the federal government. He said he also believes if the federal government is allowed any kind of precedent to establish driving license regulations, Washington will use that precedent to expand its authority to other areas in the future.

"I think a view of history over the last hundred years where we see a greater and greater centralization of power in the United States. ... This is not a positive trend. So we want to say no to all types of over reach from Washington, D.C."

Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., is sponsoring the STANDUP Act in the House, and says the state's rights argument has been used against several other historic bills that have done a lot of good.

"The same arguments were raised when the federal government imposed a 0.8 percent blood alcohol limit, when the federal government imposed mandatory seatbelts, when the federal government imposed car seats," he said. "All of those measures have proven to be very helpful in saving lives, and that's what we're trying to do here."

Ray Sanderbeck's 15-year-old daughter, Michelle, died in 2006 when she was riding in the car with her friend, who lost control of the vehicle and crashed. He says if this kind of law would have been in effect in 2006, his daughter would still be here.

"If they can nationalize this across the United States, I know it will save teen lives," Sanderbeck told FoxNews.com. "Anytime you can save one life, each state should adopt that. So I don't see where there should be any resistance personally."

But not everyone thinks STANDUP will save lives, and some say it could actually cost lives.

Mike Males is a sociologist who studied the effects of a similar teen driving license process California enacted in the late 1990s. He said number of fatalities among 16-year-olds dropped simply because they weren't driving. The number of fatalities among 18-19-year-olds, however, actually increased even more than the decrease among 16-year-olds.

"It turns out that its worse to have inexperienced 18-year-olds on the road than inexperienced 16-year-olds," Males said.

He added that age is not a significant indicator of bad driving, and that if legislators want to save lives they should focus their efforts on going after bad drivers.

"We ought to be concentrating on is those drivers of all ages that have already shown or demonstrated a proclivity for bad driving," he said. "So it's very inefficient to chase around all members of an age group."

Garrett Tenney is a correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined FNC in April 2013 and is based in the Chicago bureau.