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Ronnie Polaneczky | Let's help other teens

with 'Lacey's Law'

IF IT'S EVER signed into law, I hope Pennsylvania House Bill 163 gets titled "Lacey's Law."

Calling it that won't bring back Lacey Gallagher. But it might remind teenagers, before they become licensed drivers, of the huge power they'll wield behind the wheel.

Lacey was the Little Flower High School senior who was killed Saturday morning in a single-car wreck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. She and six others in a 2001 Suzuki SUV were heading from Center City to the Poconos for a post-prom party.

None was wearing a seat belt when the car hit a cement lane divider just before 3 a.m., spun across the road and flipped several times. Six of the teens were ejected from the car. Lacey died at the scene; the others had severe injuries.

The investigation is ongoing, and there has been no mention of drugs or alcohol in connection with the crash. But the hour was late, the road was wet, the male driver just 17 years old. An acquaintance of his told the Daily News that it appears the teen nodded off at the wheel.

Such an innocent mistake. Such heartbreaking consequences. Such a wake-up call about what all drivers need to stay safe on the road.

Especially the young ones.

Nationwide, 16-year-old drivers have crash rates three times higher than 17-year-old drivers and five times higher than 18-year-old drivers. The rate declines substantially with driving experience and with age, (studies show that the part of the brain affecting risk-taking behavior and judgment isn't fully developed until we're closer to our twenties).

That's why Pennsylvania, along with all but 10 states, instituted a graduated driver's license, which aims to ease young drivers through a "phased" approach to driving.

The most important phase forbids drivers under 18 from being behind the wheel between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. (there are a few exceptions to the ban; privacy rules forbade a PennDOT official yesterday from disclosing whether the driver in Saturday's 3 a.m. crash was allowed to be driving at that time of the night).

This prohibition alone has saved lives in states that have graduated licenses, state crash data shows. But House Bill 163, introduced by state Rep. Katharine Watson, R-Bucks, seeks to strengthen the rules.

One would require 65 hours of driving experience for teens seeking a license, including no less than 10 hours of nighttime driving and no less than five hours of driving in inclement weather. Currently, the requirement is 50 hours of driving, without specification of conditions.

Which is hard to believe.

"It just makes sense that teens should be experienced in all conditions before they're allowed to take the wheel," says Watson, who works on transportation-safety issues.

The bill would also prohibit junior drivers from having more than one passenger under age 18 in the car, since other studies have shown that more teens in a car equal more distractions for a teen driver.

I know: Even if HB163 becomes law, there's no guarantee teens will follow it.

After all, just yesterday, an emotional New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine admitted that he had set a poor example a few weeks ago by not following the Garden State's seat-belt law the day his SUV flew off the road in an accident that nearly killed him.

If you can't get a smart, mature adult to take common-sense precautions, what hope is their for invincible-minded teen drivers - in Jersey or anywhere?

Plenty, actually, given how the graduated licenses have already curbed U.S. teen auto deaths.

HB 163 might reduce them even further, and a new name - Lacey's Law - would remind teens why it's needed. *