Despite setbacks, advocates for youth safety press on

Jennifer Kline, executive director for Voices for Children, discusses several bills regarding child safety that were killed at the recent legislative session. (Photo by Travis Gulbrandson)

Jennifer Kline, executive director for Voices for Children, discusses several bills regarding child safety that were killed at the recent legislative session. (Photo by Travis Gulbrandson)

By Travis Gulbrandson

It was not the most successful year for advocates of youth driving safety at the 2013 South Dakota legislative session.

Of the four bills drafted in part by South Dakota Voices for Children – a group focused on program and policy advocacy – only one of them was signed into law by the governor.

That has to change, said Jennifer Kline, Voices for Children’s executive director.

“In the last 10-plus years, South Dakota has either led the nation or been close to leading the nation in the number of accidental teen deaths, and those accidental teen deaths are mostly due to car crashes,” she said.

Kline’s comments were made during a forum held at USD’s Muenster University Center on Thursday, March 28.

More than a year ago, South Dakota Voices for Children was asked to put together a taskforce on safe teen driving, to do research and find a reason for those numbers, a process which began last year and involved members of the state highway patrol, insurance companies, legislators and driver education teachers.

“That committee came to the conclusion that there were two main reasons, Kline said. “One was that there was not enough education of our young drivers, and the second one was distractions.”

The four bills each addressed these issues in some way, she said.

SB106, the lone bill to pass, prohibits beginning drivers from using wireless communication devices while operating motor vehicles on public highways.

Kline said the other three bills also could have prevented further accidents and possibly deaths.

SB105 would have revised provisions regarding instruction permits and restricted minor’s permits to drive.

“Right now, a 14- or 15-year-old can ride with an adult or their parents for three months, and then essentially get their drivers license and be able to drive by themselves,” Kline said. “What the taskforce recognized was, sometimes that’s June, July and August or July, August and September, and in South Dakota, we know the roads are better (at that time).”

The bill would have increased instruction time to nine months so teen drivers could experience all South Dakota weather conditions with supervision, she said.

While it passed the Senate, the bill was killed in the House transportation committee.

This also was the fate of SB107, which would have restricted the number of passengers for anyone with a restricted minor’s permit, except for school-related events.

“The more rural legislators really did not support this,” Kline said.

The bill that had the most discussion – SB126 – was about establishing a uniform driver education program.

“There’s actually federal money available that would come to the state to create a full-time employee to basically standardize a curriculum across the state and create a network of drivers ed teachers. This would really improve our overall drivers education system,” Kline said.
This was the only one of the bills to pass through the House Transportation Committee, but since it did not receive a 2/3 vote, it died on the House floor.

Kline said she has hope for next year’s session.

“The three (bills) that did not make it through we will no doubt be introducing again next year, so I’m going to be working hard throughout the year to educate people on the importance of these, and how important it is to try and lower the rates of our teen deaths,” she said.

Teen driver safety was not the only area in which Kline said South Dakota’s children lost out. SB209 dealt with the registration of day care facilities.

“Right now we are the only state where no registration is required, so you can have up to 12 kids in your home with no registration … and nobody knows you’re operating, so you could have up to 12 babies for all we know,” Kline said.

The state with the next-highest allowance requires registration starting with seven kids, while most states require it with five, Kline said.

“We really are an outlier in this area,” she said.

Kline described registration as a simple process that holds the providers to basic safety standards, such as the presence of egress windows and fire extinguishers.

The bill made it out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, but died on the Senate floor.

“The people who opposed it said, ‘We know our providers in our small town, and they’re good people,’” Kline said. “Most likely they are, but our argument back to them is this: The legislature actually passed a law three years ago, that if you’re running a hunting lodge … and you’re bringing hunters in and they’re staying in your cabin, you have to have egress windows and basic safety things like a fire extinguisher. And yet we’re not passing those same things for our kids.”

Kline said she expects the bill to be introduced again next year.

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