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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Online driver education bill hits road block in Senate

CONCORD – A plan to let teens take driver education courses online rather than from professional instructors hit the breakdown lane in the state Senate on Wednesday.

By a 17-7 vote, the Senate sent this House-passed bill to interim study, politely killing the measure. This forces supporters to start over if they wish with an initiative before a new Legislature in 2013.

“This legislation is an idea whose time is coming but it hasn’t arrived yet. It needs more work,” said Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett.

The bill would have ended the requirement that teens age 151⁄2 have to take 10 hours of driving and 30 hours of classroom lessons from an instructor to get a driver’s license before they turn 18.

The bill, HB 1440, would have let teens take the coursework online and require parents to take their own online course to give 20 hours of instruction to their children.

The aim was to lower the price tag for driver’s education, which can run upwards of $600 or more.

Seven Republican senators, including President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, broke ranks with committee leadership and tried to revive the bill.

Sen. Gary Lambert, R-Nashua, said he’s taken many courses online and thought students could benefit from them.

“I really felt for the kids who don’t have that kind of money,” Lambert said. “Driver education shouldn’t be something that only the well-off can afford their children to have.”

Sen. Jim Luther, R-Hollis, worried about teen safety when studies show one in two new drivers have an accident in the first year of operation.

“I don’t think we are even doing enough, to be honest with you,” Lambert said.

Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Henniker, said the bill wouldn’t stop parents from making sure their children needed extra private instruction if they need it.

“Let’s trust the parents to know they will do what’s right for their children,” Sanborn said.

Boutin said it wasn’t fair to the rest of motorists for the state to do this.

“What concerns me the most is all the driving public in this state have a right to know they are going to be safe when they are on the road,” Boutin said.

Private driver education instructors thought they had stopped this bill early on in the House when a committee recommended, 15-2, it be killed.

Supporters rallied before the House and overcame that roadblock to pass it, 240-74.

Home-school students and parents were part of the lobbying effort for it.

They said home-schooled children had to wait a year or more to get driver education because they went to the back of the line to get the coursework.

Students and their backers protested when the driving programs hired a well-known lobbyist, Jim Demers, to help turn the tide in the Senate.

The state’s police chiefs as well as AAA of Northern New England and domestic insurance groups all came out against the idea.

These opponents and others blamed the Legislature for creating this outrage over cost when, in 2011, it ended a $150-a-student subsidy from the state budget for driver education.

And they noted parents with several cars get a healthy discount on their automobile insurance if their children have passed driver education courses.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter.