Youth in focus as laws change


GREENFIELD — Hancock County law enforcement is ready to enforce new laws that aim to protect young drivers.

Earlier this week, a law went into effect prohibiting any driver younger than 21 from using a cellphone — even if it’s hands-free — while driving. It also limits the hours those drivers may be on the road at night.

Before Wednesday, those laws applied to drivers 18 and younger.

House Enrolled Act 1394 went into effect Wednesday. The legislation passed both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly with overwhelming support and was signed by Gov. Mike Pence in May.

The law states licenses issued to drivers younger than 21 are probationary.

It prohibits those 21 and younger from driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. during the first 180 days after the license is issued.

Once young drivers have held a license for more than 180 days and until they turn 18, they’re not permitted to drive a vehicle between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. Saturday or Sunday; after 11 p.m. or before 5 a.m. Monday through Friday.

Exceptions to the law include drivers traveling to or from work.

Young drivers may only use a cellphone to make an emergency 911 call.

Now, it’s up to local law enforcement to enforce the rules.

Greenfield Police Department Chief John Jester said his department spent the majority of Wednesday discussing the law change, and officers are prepared to crack down.

“Should they observe a violation, they will act accordingly,” Jester said. “I think distracted driving is becoming a huge problem.”

He said the new law should be easier to enforce than a 2011 Indiana law that prohibited all drivers from text messaging while operating a vehicle.

The new law doesn’t only address texting, he said. Teens who are driving aren’t allowed to be on the phone for any reason other than calling 911 in an emergency.

“This will be much easier for us to enforce and prove,” he said.

But Sheriff Mike Shepherd said he still has questions about the law. Until this week, he hadn’t heard about it, he said.

The new legislation might be difficult to enforce because officers will have to guess whether a driver is younger than 21 before deciding to pull them over.

Still, sheriff’s deputies are ready to enforce whatever the General Assembly has deemed necessary, he said.

“There’s always new laws that come into effect July 1,” he said. “Any new law out there, we’re ready to enforce.”

Melanie Nichols, a Fairland mother of two teenage daughters, said she was happy to see the law go into effect Wednesday.

Distracted driving is bad driving, especially in young drivers, she said. But the law would provide more protection if it applied to all drivers, she said.

“It’s dangerous to have a steering wheel and a cellphone in your hand,” she said.

“It’s so much safer when you’re not multitasking with a phone in your hand.”

Jester said he believes it’s likely only a matter of time before state lawmakers ban cellphone use for all drivers.

Legislation prohibiting cellphone use by drivers was proposed by some lawmakers during this year’s session. The legislation was never adopted.

“I think, in time, we will see that. When that will be, I don’t know,” he said.

In neighboring Illinois, a law is already in place banning drivers from using cellphones while on the road. Those who break the law face a fine.

Laws prohibiting cellphone use for all drivers aren’t a bad idea, the police chief said.

“Even an adult can get distracted,” Jester said.

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House Enrolled Act 1394 deals with probationary licenses for young drivers.

The law prohibits any driver under the age of 21 from using a cellphone while operating a vehicle — except for during an emergency.

It also limits what time young drivers can be on the road:

A new driver under 21 may not operate a vehicle from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. within the first 180 days of getting a license. After 180 days have passed, teens under 18 can’t drive between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday and after 11 p.m. Sunday through Friday. Those driving to or from work, a school-sponsored activity or a religious activity are exempt. 

Additionally, the law changes the date at which a teen can gain a driver’s license. Teens who have held a valid learner’s permit for at least 180 days and completed a driver education course may get their licenses once they’re 16 years and 90 days old. Previously, they had to wait until they were 16 and 180 days old.