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New rules help parents keep teen drivers safe

Parents of teen drivers can give them a lifesaving gift this holiday season: a full briefing, followed by a stern warning, on the new restrictions for 16- and 17-year-old motorists that take effect on Christmas Eve.

On Saturday, Pennsylvania joins a growing number of states, including New Jersey, that limit teen drivers' passengers, bar young drivers' use of handheld phones, and get tough on those who don't buckle up. Before qualifying for a license, teen permit holders also will need to spend 30 percent more time behind the wheel, with an emphasis on driving at night and in poor weather.

The aim is to assure young drivers are more experienced, while removing driving distractions that too often prove deadly.

Beyond wearing a seat belt, the key safeguard will be a provision limiting teenage first-time drivers to one child passenger for the first six months. The rule is a smart response to data showing that, with every additional passenger, the likelihood of a fatal wreck increases for young motorists.

Harrisburg missed a chance to save even more lives by extending the passenger limits to all drivers under 18. But the hope is that, early on, new drivers will get the message that too many buddies along for a ride can be deadly.

Of course, simply passing new rules won't change how teens drive. While police have new authority to pull over teens for these infractions, realistically, it will be up to teens and their parents to promote compliance.

For starters, parents must insist their child gets the full 65 hours of on-the-road practice. Then, they need to establish take-away-the-keys rules on complying with the new restrictions.

These rules will save lives, but only if there's a partnership between young drivers and the adults who care for them. The legislature has given parents valuable new tools to forge that partnership and help keep their teen drivers safe.