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Parents have the law as backup when enforcing driving rules

Parents have the law as backup when enforcing driving rules


We have a new teen driver in the family.

At the end of the summer we had this conversation about her driving to the county fair. See if this sounds familiar:

Teen: “I’m going to be driving Susie to the fair.” (Names were changed to protect the innocent.)

Parents: “OK, and are you both meeting up with Janie at the fair?”

Teen: “Yes, but I’m not sure if she is driving or being dropped off. But if she’s dropped off, I can just drive her home to her house. It’s not very far away.”

Parents: “No, you can’t because that’s two passengers in the car and you are only allowed one other passenger under 21 in the car with you at time.”

Teen: “It’s not very far.”

Parents: “This is not negotiable. This is the law: ONLY ONE PASSENGER …”

Turns out it’s not just teens who don’t really know exactly what the Tennessee Graduated Driver License law states. There are a lot of rules to know and follow during that first year of the 16-year-old graduated license. It’s not like the previous generation who got their licenses at 15 and off they went. Since July 1, 2001, Tennessee has operated under a graduated license program aimed at decreasing teen accidents and deaths.

“The bill was passed in May 2000, and went into effect July 1st, 2001,” said Wes Moster, deputy director of communications for the Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security. “The bill was supported by AAMVA (American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators), AAA, Vanderbilt, NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Association). Graduated had been set up in other states. There was some resistance from some parents who didn’t want their children to be restricted.”

I’m not sure what the thinking was there with those parents, but, I am thankful for the graduated program. It gives parents a structure and a backup partner when easing their child into driving and enforcing the rules. Even after a year of white-knuckle door-handle grabbing driving with my daughter at the wheel, I still was not 100% convinced she was ready to just go unrestricted out on the road. That is now especially true with the traffic we have here.

The basics of the program are this:

  1. A 15-year-old obtains a learner’s permit and must spent at least 180 days driving with a licensed driver in the front seat of the car. Many also take a driver’s education course during this period.
  2. The intermediate restricted license comes next when a teen turns 16 and passes a road test with the DMV or, in some cases, with their driver’s education course instructor. A parent must verify that the teen gained 50 hours of driving experience – even though it felt like 500 hours to the parent in the passenger seat!
  3. When a teen turns 17 and has held an intermediate restricted license for one year and has not accumulated a driving record or a traffic accident that was their fault, they can receive an unrestricted license.
  4. Finally, at 18 or when they graduate from high school or receive a GED, a teen may obtain a regular driver license.

The tricky part to parent in all of this are the restrictions. Under the intermediate restricted license, a 16-year-old can only drive with one other passenger 21 or under. This is a doozy to monitor. As much as you tell your child the rules, you can’t be with them all the time. And this is one they really don’t like.

They can also not drive between 11 p.m. until 6 a.m. unless they are with a parent, going hunting or fishing (who knew?) and have a valid hunting or fishing license or – and this is the big OR – they are driving to or from work or a specifically-identified school-sponsored activity. A teen with a restricted license needs a signed note with them stating that they are coming or going from work or from a school event during these hours in case they are stopped by police. Finally, seatbelts are required always.

If you think your teen might entertain the idea of forging a note stating permission to drive after curfew, you might want to run the penalty by them: “revocation of Intermediate Restricted and re-issuance of a Learner Permit only until teen reaches the age of 18.” That might help change their mind about messing with a forged note.

So, what is a legitimate “specifically-identified school-sponsored activity”? I asked Mr. Moster and much to my surprise things like football games and dances are OK.

“Yes, a sporting event or dance would be permissible,” he said.

I wondered what would happen if your child was stopped for violating any of these rules. What penalties do they face because it’s not exactly a speeding ticket or an accident?

“Yes, juveniles are cited differently than adults,” Moster said. He sent me a rather lengthy explanation of the point system used for teen drivers vs. adult drivers. If you’re interested, I’ve included it at the end of this piece. But he said a lot of discretion is given to the police officer in these situations.

“That depends on the local law enforcement agencies. Some are more strict than others, but all law enforcement must enforce the law,” he said.

Sgt. Amy Butler of the Franklin Police Department works nights and has experience with teen drivers. She said officers do stop teens who might be violating restricted license laws.

“We do have discretion,” she said. “We have the option to write a citation or we can call every single parent (if too many teens are in the car or if the teens are out after curfew). And if we can’t get ahold of parents, we can take them to juvenile court.”

All good things to scare your teen with if the usual reminders about the rules don’t seem to be sticking.

Sgt. Butler said she recommends parents make sure their teens know that they are personally responsible for everyone in their car. Not only when it comes to violating the restricted license law but all laws.

Moster said the most violated part of the restricted license are multiple seatbelt violations and combinations of moving violations that cause the driver to go over the six-point threshold. He recommended parents and teens look at the Comprehensive Driver Training Manual and the state website.

Butler said her tips for teen drivers include always knowing where they are going, making sure they have enough gas in the car, getting off their cell phones and avoid being distracted (by the ONE other passenger in the car or even the radio).

“Tennessee has been instrumental in creating opportunities for both teens and parents to learn the rules of the roads,” Moster said. “In Tennessee, parents are held responsible for their teen’s driving behaviors and actions through the GDL law. The Tennessee Teen Safe Driving Coalition was started in 2012 to help engage teens in safe driving initiatives while educating parents on the importance of being your teen’s coach when learning how to be a safe driver.”

He went on to say Tennessee has many resources to help educate teen drivers to feel comfortable and equipped when driving on Tennessee roadways. Here is a list of initiatives available to help educate teens and parents on safe driving habits and the consequences of making bad choices when driving:

  • Students Against Destructive Decisions
  • The Cookeville TEST Club
  • TN Teen Safe Driving Coalition
  • Mothers Against Drunk Driving

As a parent, there is a lot here to digest but it seems to be working in terms of the original intent of the graduated license law. In 1996, before the law was adopted there were 116 fatalities caused by drivers age 15-17 and 107 fatal crashes. In 2006, the last year for which Moster provided statistics, there were 75 fatalities and 65 fatal crashes among drivers age 15-17. That’s still a sad number of fatalities but it is less.

teen fatalities
Source: TN Dept. of Safety and Homeland Security, TITAN Division. 7 September 2017 (FARS Encyclopedia)

So, parents can take comfort in knowing they have the laws of the graduated license to back them up when navigating the waters of teen driving rules. You can even go with the line, “It’s not my rule, it’s the law in the state of Tennessee.”

Point system provided by the state of Tennessee:

Adult Points System

The Driver Improvement Section of the Tennessee Department of Safety was established to monitor the driving records of Tennessee drivers. Drivers that accumulate twelve (12) or more points on their driving record within any 12-month period are sent a notice of proposed suspension and given an opportunity to attend an administrative hearing. If they fail to request a hearing, their driving privileges are suspended for a period of six to 12 months. In most cases, when a driver requests a hearing, they are given the opportunity to attend a defensive driving class in lieu of suspension or a reduction of suspension time. Locate a Tennessee Department of Safety approved Defensive Driving School.

Juvenile Points System

Drivers less than eighteen (18) years of age that accumulate six (6) or more points on their driving record within any twelve (12) month period are sent a

Barbara Esteves-Moore

notice of proposed suspension from the Department of Safety and are placed in the Driver Improvement Program. The driver will be required to attend an

Barbara Esteves-Moore is a journalist, editor and the owner of Two Roads Communications and an editor for Home Page Media. She has been married for 20 years and is the mother of an active, opinionated and very lively 16-year-old.You can reach her at

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