WHENEVER I argue for tougher teen-driving laws, which I've done often, my inbox crackles with emails from naysayers convinced that teens don't need tougher laws. They need tougher parents.

And if those parents don't teach their kids the responsible way to drive a motor vehicle, readers argue coldly, then families deserve the heartache if their teen driver dies while operating the family car as if it's a PlayStation on wheels.

But tragedy isn't that straightforward. Just ask the Downingtown family of 19-year-old Jesika Kavanagh.

In 2008, after two of her friends were killed in a Chester County car crash, Jesika took driving safety to heart.

"She wouldn't put the key in the ignition until everyone had their seat belts on," says her uncle, Victor Cozzone. "She was a serious, careful driver."

But her mindfulness behind the wheel couldn't save her from Kyle Wilson, 17, who police say was driving 26 miles over the speed limit when he slammed into Jesika's car in Chester County on Feb. 19, killing her.

Two passengers in her vehicle - her boyfriend and her boyfriend's dad - were seriously injured. Last week, Kyle Wilson was charged with homicide-by-vehicle and related reckless-driving offenses.

So, consider him Exhibit A for a key point made in a new report released by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in partnership with State Farm Insurance:

Nearly one-third of those who are killed in car crashes involving teen drivers are not even in the teen's car. They are pedestrians, cyclists and - like Jesika - occupants of other vehicles.

"We were honestly surprised by that discovery," says Dr. Dennis Durbin, a pediatric emergency physician at CHOP and co-director of scientific research in the hospital's Center for Injury Research and Prevention.

"Teen driving is an issue for everyone, not just for those with a teen in the household. This is a community-health issue."

More than half of teen drivers who were fatally injured in crashes were speeding, according to the report. Forty percent had alcohol in their system. More than half were not wearing seat belts. And 16 percent said they'd been distracted.

And guess what? Research shows that most of the distraction is caused by other teens in the driver's car. The chances that a 16-year-old will die in a teen-driven crash increases 39 percent with one teen passenger; 86 percent with two; and 182 percent with three or more.

That's why a new bill introduced by state Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks, makes so much sense. Her House Bill 9 seeks to restrict the number of teenagers a teen driver can have in the car.

If passed, this part of the bill would be called "Lacey's Law," named for Little Flower High School senior Lacey Gallagher. She was a passenger in a teen-driven SUV with six others in 2007, when she died in a prom-night car wreck on the rain-slicked Pennsylvania Turnpike.

If House Bill 9 had been law that night, Lacey would never have been in that car.

The bill also requires seat belt use by teens and 65 (up from 50) hours of practical driving experience - at least 10 of them at night, and at least five in inclement weather.

Astoundingly, no such requirement currently exists. So the first time a teen driver encounters, say, rain, it could be without an experienced driver alongside him to provide guidance.

"We need laws to protect teen drivers from themselves, but also to protect us from them," says Watson, who, bless her soul, has been pushing for stronger teen-driving laws for a decade.

"This isn't about taking responsibility away from parents or 'big brother' government intruding where it shouldn't. This is about common sense."

Pennsylvania is one of only seven states that hasn't updated its teen-driving laws to reflect the current research - although not from lack of trying.

Last session, Watson crafted a bill nearly identical to H.B. 9, but it got so choked by unrelated amendments, it couldn't pass on its original merits.

This time around, House Transportation Committee executive director Eric Bugaile tells me, the bill has strong support and will be brought up for discussion by early May.

"I'm feeling good about it," says Watson, who is currently sussing out the results of a poll that she commissioned to test public opinion of strengthened teen-driving laws.

She'll release the full results in about two weeks, but her initial review has her feeling optimistic that Pennsylvanians are finally ready for teen-driving laws that are as smart as those on the books in all but seven states. "I think the time is finally right," she says. "I hope it is. Because I'm getting old here."