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GUEST OPINION: We don't want this to happen to anyone else

Last August, our 21-year-old son, Trystan Nash Shelly, was killed, allegedly by an 18-year-old driver with prior offenses, including driving under the influence of alcohol and road racing at 109 mph. According to court records and police documents, the driver obtained his license in January 2009 and was charged with multiple offenses between March and early August before our son's life was taken three weeks later.

I (Jessalyn) have taught criminal justice courses at Sonoma State Univeristy and worked with misdemeanor and felony-level cases, including those involving vehicular manslaughter, for a decade as a restorative-justice facilitator. Had our legal system upheld California's zero-tolerance laws, Trystan would likely be alive today.

<CS8.7>What is the point of hiring law enforcement to cite and charge people violating safety laws only to have our legal system dismiss or minimize the impacts, encouraging offenders to continue down a dangerous path? Knowing our son could be here today if the driver who hit him had been held accountable for prior offenses is excruciating.

</CS>Many people were devastated by Trystan's death. More than 1,000 California voters signed a letter that was hand-delivered Tuesday to Attorney General Jerry Brown. The communiqu?requests that justice be served in our son's case in a hearing Monday (where the driver may enter a plea) and in similar cases around the state.

Common sense tells us that the license of the driver who hit Trystan should have been suspended months before the fatal accident because of the driver's record of irresponsibility. We hope appropriate consequences are applied now. The letter also asks Brown to address larger public safety issues around teen-licensing laws.

Although revamped licensing laws involving teens that were put in place over a decade ago were designed to be more restrictive and result in greater safety, they may actually be contributing to more fatalities. The goal of "Graduated Driver Licensing Laws" (GDL) — where teens get licenses in stages, with restrictions until age 18 — is to prevent injuries and deaths from teen motor vehicle crashes. But is that really happening?

Current law simply permits teens to bypass requirements such as driver's education and on-the-road training by waiting until they turn 18 to get licenses. Thousands are doing so. A 2006 study indicates that this waiting results in more fatalities caused by and among teens. Published in the 2006 California Journal of Health Promotion by Mike Males, senior researcher at the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, it found that any reduction in fatalities among 16- and 17-year-old drivers under the newer GDL laws was more than offset by an increased death rate among 18-year-old drivers.

Males questions the effectiveness of the GDL program because the focus is on all young drivers. All young drivers are not the same. Some engage in riskier behavior than others. Males' work indicates it may be more efficient for GDL laws to target the high-risk group responsible for most serious accidents.

The study's findings include other factors that contribute to higher risk among older teens. For example, those who bypass driver's education before obtaining licenses at 18 or older are more likely to be mentored by parents or other adults who pass on unsafe driving habits — especially if they, too, have avoided drivers ed and sound training.

Concern over these licensing laws actually began as early as 2003 when a Department of Motor Vehicles valuation of the GDL program found data similar to Males'.


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