World and Nation

Massachusetts Drivers Under 18 Feel The Sting of New, Tough Driving Laws

The number of license suspensions of Massachusetts drivers under 18 has soared over the past year because of a tough new law aimed at curbing bad driving habits by junior operators.

About 3,000 drivers age 16 and 17 had their license or learner’s permit suspended between March 31, when the law took effect, and early December, according to data from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. About 1,700 junior operators lost their license or permit during the same period in 2006.

Fatal crashes with junior operators behind the wheel dropped from 27 in 2006 to 17 last year, according to preliminary year-end numbers from the Registry. The tally counts the number of accidents in which there was a fatality, but not how many people died or who was at fault.

While the drop in fatal accidents could be attributed to a number of factors, including weather, state officials are praising the new law in helping to curb dangerous driving by teenagers.

“It is exactly what we were hoping would happen,” said Senator Steven A. Baddour, chairman of the Transportation Committee, who pushed the bill requiring tougher penalties. “We knew as soon as one kid got pinched, every kid in his school would know about it, and it would have an impact.”

The new law also stiffened the punishment for many moving violations and required mandatory driver training after suspensions. Coming after several highly publicized fatalities involving young drivers in 2005 and 2006, the law was intended to protect inexperienced and often immature drivers.

Teenage drivers now face a suspension ranging from 90 days for a first-time speeding ticket to one year for a second or later offense. Fines and fees required to get the license back can cost up to $1,000.

The law also cracked down on other offenses, but about 2,000 of last year’s teen suspensions involved at least speeding tickets.

The suspensions represent a dramatic increase in the penalties faced by young speeders. Previously, first-time speeders paid a fine that could be as low as $50. They were also permitted to keep their licenses.

While the law was welcomed by parents, teenagers with suspended licenses complained that the law was Draconian.

“It seems slightly overly strict to me,” said Isaiah Switzer, 18, of Pittsfield, who lost his license for 90 days for driving 12 miles per hour over the speed limit. His parents had to take three days off from work to drive him to his college exams in Boston, a 2-1/2-hour trip. “It has been quite a problem at times,” he said.

Another teenager who lost her license is feeling the brunt of the law.

“Even if I want to visit my friends for an hour, it is a big inconvenience,” said Colleen Blanchard, 17, of Shrewsbury, who lost her license for 90 days after getting a ticket for going 46 in a 30-mile-per-hour zone. Now, she needs parents or friends to drive her to and from school and her friends’ homes.