TRENTON — Teenage drivers would have to complete at least 50 hours of practice driving in a year, including 10 hours when it’s dark, in order to become eligible for a probationary license under a bill endorsed by an Assembly committee Monday.

The proposal isn’t new, having passed Senate and Assembly committees in 2017 and 2018 and the full Assembly in 2017, but keeps stalling out. And it dates back far longer than that, said Tracy Noble, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“This is something that is long overdue,” Noble said. “It was a recommendation that came out of the Teen Driving Study Commission in 2007, and here we are in 2021 still trying to get this over the goalpost.”

Assemblyman Dan Benson, D-Mercer, said it’s a good time to focus on improving driver safety, given that the number of accidents is up during the pandemic despite reductions in traffic.

“Essentially what this bill does is changes the requirements for practice behind the wheel before getting your license, and the point here is not only to increase the hours but to require nighttime practice, as well,” Benson said.

Noble said that in a AAA poll done in the fall, 74% of New Jersey motorists supported the proposed 50 hours of practice driving.

“Unfortunately, New Jersey is one of only three states in the country that does not mandate practice hours for new drivers. And this is certainly a distinction that we do not like being known for,” said Noble.

The other states are Arkansas and Missouri.

“We don’t view it as a heavy lift,” Noble said. “This is something that a supervising driver can do with a permit holder for less than an hour a week. Fifty hours comes down to 57 minutes a week.”

Permits are currently required for six months before a person becomes eligible for a probationary license, but that would increase to 12 months under the bill.

Permit holders under age 21 would have to complete at least 50 hours of practice driving, including 10 at night. A parent, guardian or supervising driving would have to certify that the practice driving hours are completed, and driving privileges can be suspended if a fraudulent certification is submitted.

The six-hour, behind-the-wheel driving education course would still be required, though additional students or the parents of the student driver would begin to be allowed to be present in the back seat.

Anay Badlani, a junior at West Orange High School, said according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, if each state adopted the strictest measures of a graduated driver’s license system, the number of crashes each year could drop by more than 9,500 and more than 500 lives could be saved.

In 2011, Badlani’s 11-year-old old brother, Nikhil, was killed by a distracted driver who ran a stop sign.

“There is a big void in our lives that can never be filled. Grief and tears linger close by. My brother’s life was lost in a completely preventable crash,” Badlani said. “With the passage of this bill, the state will save fiscal resources, insurance companies will benefit from reduced risk and most importantly, it will save lives.”

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Evan Correa, a junior at West Orange High School, said there’s no governance on what constitutes the current six months of supervised driving.

“There’s absolutely no substitute for spending time on the road to improve your driving and decision-making skills,” Correa said. “And that right there is the crux of our argument in support of this bill. Practice is a necessary and life-saving aspect of a driver’s education program. Adding these 50 hours is an indispensable addition to the current GDL program in New Jersey.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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