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Utah law prohibiting new drivers from having friends in car could soon change

Feb 1, 2024, 5:54 PM | Updated: Feb 2, 2024, 1:36 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — A longtime law in Utah prohibiting teens from driving with friends in the car for a certain period of time may soon change.

A House committee gave the green light Thursday afternoon to HB351, sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, that would allow 16- and 17-year-old drivers to have one friend in the vehicle during the six months after receiving a driver’s license.

The bill passed out of the House Transportation Committee with a 7 to 5 vote.

“Our kids are doing this. They are driving with other friends, and they’re breaking the law,” Birkeland said. “So maybe the law should change.”

woman with brown hair and a white shirt sits in a room

Rep. Kera Birkeland during the 2024 session of the Utah Legislature. (Eddie Collins, KSL TV)

Birkeland said she got the idea for the bill after her daughter was pulled over recently and cited for having friends in the vehicle soon after receiving her license.

“It’s very common – especially in rural communities when your kid’s going to drive a half hour or hour into a city to carpool – to have them ride together,” Birkeland said. “I know, as a mom, I don’t want my 16-year-old driving at night by herself.”

Dave McConnell, owner of Dave’s Driving School who has taught teen drivers for more than 40 years, told KSL TV he recognizes the law is likely not widely followed, and that many teenagers don’t like it.

But, he added, the reason behind the law is clear.

“It’s safer not to have people in the car with you,” he said. “I’m a better driver when I’m by myself. Kids are a better driver when they’re by themselves. There’s just no doubt about that.”

Dave McConnell, owner of Dave’s Driving School, says that teen drivers are at greatest risk when they are new drivers and that driving with a friend increases that risk on Feb. 2, 2024. (Eddie Collins, KSL TV)

Initially, Birkeland said she wanted to get rid of the law completely. But after hearing concerns from law enforcement, she compromised to allow new drivers to have just one passenger who’s not a family member.

“Let them pick up a friend,” Birkeland said. “But they still have to obey all the speeding laws. They still have to be safe drivers.”

McConnell said he still wants to see some sort of restriction on teens driving with friends, especially with all the distractions new drivers face.

“Most teenagers are getting in a crash – some sort of a crash – that first year,” McConnell said. “Probably in the first six months.”

During the House committee hearing Thursday, some lawmakers expressed concern about keeping kids safe and not changing the law just because many don’t follow it.

But Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael Rapich noted that even with this change, it would still fall within national standards for best practices by allowing new drivers to have “no more than one” friend in the vehicle.

HB351 now heads to the full House of Representatives for a vote. But the discussion around safety is likely to continue. Utah’s Zero Fatalities campaign warns the risk of a crash doubles with even just one friend in the car.

KSL 5 TV Live

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(Mark Wetzel, KSL TV)...

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Utah law prohibiting new drivers from having friends in car could soon change