Published March 15, 2012
Congress is employing a similar tactic to the one it used to raise the drinking age to compel states to enact new teenage driving laws.
Three decades ago, Washington prodded the states to raise the legal drinking age to 21 by threatening to withhold federal transportation dollars if they didn't.
The threat worked.
Now, Congress is looking at using a similar strategy to compel states to pass new driving laws covering everything from teen texting to minimum driving ages.
Provisions passed Wednesday in the Senate would urge states to implement, among other new rules, a three-stage licensing process -- first a learner's permit, then an intermediate one and finally a driver's license.
The rules were passed as part of a two-year, $109 billion highway bill. They would also call for restrictions on teenage night driving during the intermediate period, bar most use of a cellphone in the first two stages and ensure regular licenses are not issued before age 18.
The rules would hit some states harder than others, as many already have strict teenage driving laws.
But according to the office of sponsor Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a number of states fall short of the proposed standards. Three states do not have regulations for nighttime driving -- and South Dakota gives unrestricted licenses to 16-year-olds. Other states would likely be compelled to raise the age at which they offer a learner's permit.
The proposal does not require these changes, and uses carrot more than stick -- offering grants to states that comply as opposed to penalizing those that don't.
"This legislation will give young drivers better education and more experience before they get out on the roads, keeping us all safer and saving lives," Gillibrand said in a written statement.
The proposal could run into objections from states' rights advocates, as well as lawmakers in rural states where the teenage driving laws tend to be less stringent.
The bill still has to clear the House.
Allstate, though, released a statement praising the bill and claiming it would save lives.
"Car crashes are the leading cause of death for young drivers, and we have a real opportunity to enact legislation that can help make our roads safer," the national insurer said in the statement. "This is a bipartisan issue that affects American families across the country."
According to the SafeRoads4Teens coalition, more than 5,000 people died in crashes involving teen drivers in 2010. The group claims the "patchwork" of state laws leaves some teen drivers "better protected than others."