By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 10, 2011….When it came time to testify on behalf of his legislation to lower the minimum eligibility age for a driver’s permit, freshman Rep. Steven Levy decided to hand over the duties to a group of sophomores.
Levy, a Marlborough Republican, brought his daughter’s sophomore U.S. History class from Plymouth North High School to the State House on Tuesday to testify on behalf of a bill (H 3080) the class had written as a project to lower the eligibility age for receiving a driver’s permit from 16 to 15 ½.
The students argued that more time behind the wheel under adult supervision would make them more experienced, safer drivers by the time they become eligible to get their license at age 16 ½.
The bill would also change the permit requirements by requiring more hours behind the wheel and fewer hours in the classroom, flip-flopping the current balance of 30 classroom hours and 18 driving hours. Junior drivers would still have to wait until they turned 16 ½ to test for their license.
“We think this is a very valid bill to pass because where we live, the weather is always changing. Young drivers need the experience in all types of conditions to know what they can handle and how to handle it,” said Sammie Burt, a 15 year-old student who testified.
Four students made their pitch to the Committee on Transportation, presenting statistics and practices used in other states that they hoped would convince lawmakers to consider their proposal.
Levy’s daughter, Rebecca, did not testify, but was in the audience.
Massachusetts is one of only eight states that makes teenagers wait until they turn 16 to receive their permit, according to Levy and the students. The students also presented teenaged driving fatality statistics that showed similar rates in Massachusetts to that in Michigan where permits are issued at age 14.
“We’re not just teenagers who want to have our licenses earlier,” Burt said, noting the bill would not change the minimum age to receive a driver’s license. “We’re just looking out for the safety of others and ourselves.”
Though Levy challenged the class after he won his election in 2010 to draft a bill as an educational exercise, he said he also supports their proposal and hopes to see it passed this session. He noted that these students will probably all turn 16 before action is taken on the bill.
“It’s not going to be to their benefit, and yet here they are arguing that it’s a rational thing for Massachusetts to adopt,” said Levy, who added that he received his permit at age 15 growing up in Texas.
Micaela Fraccalossi, 16, told lawmakers that students would also benefit from less time in the classroom taking notes, and more time getting acquainted with vehicles through hands-on experience.
Her classmates agreed.
“We watch old videos, possibly from the late 70s, early 80s,” said Michael Whitington, drawing laughter from the panel of legislators.
Michael Kenyon, an 18-year-old senior who is earning credit in the sophomore class as a teaching intern, told lawmakers that classroom study never prepared him for what it would be like driving his truck in heavy wind.
Rep. William Straus, the co-chair of the Transportation Committee, applauded the students for their efforts, though he warned the legislative process can be a slow one.
“I think it’s great in one of these class projects you’ve taken on a serious and real issue. This is a complex one,” Straus told the students.
Sen. Thomas McGee, the co-chair of the committee, said he wasn’t sure how he felt about lowering the age, but admitted that students raised “valid points” about the value of gaining a year of supervised driving experience before tackling the roads alone.
After the students left the hearing, lawmakers brought up their testimony several times while questioning other guests about their thoughts on the proposal.
“We know the younger the driver is, the more challenging the safety issue is,” said Lloyd Albert, of AAA Southern New England. “The maturity level increases as the chronological age moves along and that is helpful for safer driving. I think the program in place now is working.”
Albert appeared to testify against another bill filed by Rep. Timothy Madden (H 927) that would create a Young Driver Education Trust Fund through a 5 percent surcharge on all moving violations to support driver education courses in public schools.
As federal funding for such programs has been eliminated, driving education has increasingly shifted to the private sector that has stepped in to fill the void, sometimes charging hundreds of dollars for courses for teens.
Opponents, however, said moving driver education back into the public school domain would strain businesses and put people out of work.
“At the end of the day, we believe this kind of legislation is not business friendly and takes us backward in creating true partnerships between the public and private sectors,” Albert said.
The committee also heard testimony on a number of other local and statewide bills, including proposals to increase handicap parking fines from $150 to $200, with revenue going to support handicap accessibility; legislation filed by Rep. Stephen Canessa to improve safety standards for wheelchair passengers on board paratransit transportation vehicles; and a bill that would toughen requirements for Class II licenses to sell used automobiles.