In areas ranging from education to health care to quality of life, Minnesota often ranks among the top states. But when it comes to some driving and road safety rules, we've become laggards instead of leaders.
It took years to join most other states in lowering blood-alcohol levels for drunken driving. This state still hasn't passed mandatory helmet laws for motorcyclists. And nearly two decades of discussion precedes making even baby steps toward stronger road rules for teenagers.
Perhaps it's our independent spirit or populist resistance to anything resembling "nanny state'' rules. Whatever causes these troubling blind spots, we need to open our eyes. Attitudes about stronger driving rules, both in the Legislature and in our homes, must change. Lives are at stake.
After seven teenagers died in Minnesota car crashes last week, a headline asked, "Is new teen driving law tough enough?'' Compared with those in some other states, we'd say, the answer clearly is no. Legislators should act now to make teen driving laws stronger.
In 2008, Minnesota lawmakers did approve somewhat better license and driving provisions for teens. Motorists under 18 may not use cell phones or text while driving. During the first six months with a license, younger teens are prohibited from driving between midnight and 5 a.m., with some exceptions for work and school. And new drivers may not have more than one teenage passenger unless they are immediate family members.
Between 2008 and 2009, the number of fatal and severe crashes involving 16- and 17-year-olds dropped 17.7 percent, according to preliminary state data. That's certainly a step in the right direction.
Yet Massachusetts recently reported that its fatal accident rate for teens dropped a stunning 75 percent, and speeding offenses by 50 percent, after the state enacted even tougher laws. In 2006, legislators there bolstered driver's ed requirements and significantly increased penalties for violations by younger drivers. A first-time speeder who once would have only received a small fine now also loses his license for 90 days. After that, the teen must pay a $500 reinstatement fee, attend eight hours of training and retake the state's driver exam.
When those strict rules took effect and the first few teens lost their licenses, word quickly spread. Young people talked about the changes and shared information through social-networking websites. The strict rules and expensive fines got their attention and changed behaviors, leading to a dramatic drop in fatal and serious crashes.
In Minnesota, one of the three fatal collisions involving teens last week took six lives -- four of them teenagers. Though it was suspected that alcohol may have been involved, tests revealed that the driver was not drinking. Still, driving after midnight, carrying too many teen passengers and failure to wear seat belts violated state laws.
What will it take to get through to Minnesota teens and their families? Tougher laws and stiffer penalties can help, as Massachusetts has demonstrated. In some states, teens must be 16 to get a learner's permit and 17 to receive a license.
Beyond laws, parents must parents must get involved to help their children follow the rules, even when it's inconvenient to take away the keys.
Gordy Pehrson, traffic safety coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, points out that the 2008 law's intent was to ''provide a basis for parents to do the enforcing.'' He added that Minnesota might consider toughening penalties and increasing the number of hours teens spend driving while supervised. The more "windshield time'' teens have in various road conditions, the better drivers they become.
While the state could do more, the federal government may step up instead. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced legislation last week that would set national restrictions on teen driving, including raising the learner's permit age to 16 and extending some nighttime driving limits until age 18 in all states.
Minnesota should be moving in that direction to help protect drivers of all ages.