Teen Cruise Controls

WHEN THE SUN SETS IN SILER CITY, N.C., teenagers drive to the Gravel, a parking lot that doubles as the town's big hangout. Dana Wilson, 15, had hoped to be behind the wheel, making the scene, when she gets her license in January. But the state legislature has other plans. Last April it passed a law that says kids can't drive after 9 p.m. for the first six months after they get their license. For Wilson, that means more tagging along in her older brother's car. ""All of my friends are out cruising,'' she complains. ""I want to be able to do that.''

As rites of pubescent passage go, a driver's license is up there with first kisses and senior proms. But states across the country are putting the brakes on teens' driving dreams. Last year Florida, Georgia and Michigan all passed laws restricting young drivers. New Jersey and Ohio are debating similar measures. Most of the new rules prohibit novices from driving late at night, when many fatal accidents involving teens occur. Some states, like Georgia, also forbid driving a car loaded with other teens. These provisions are designed to ease inexperienced drivers onto the road slowly by not giving them an unrestricted license until the age of 18.

Statistics support the precautions. Sixteen-year-olds have a crash rate three times as high as 18- and 19-year-olds, says researcher Allan Williams. They're also more likely to rack up while driving a car filled with their friends. ""Put one teenager in a car and you may have a decent driver,'' says Brian O'Neill of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. ""Put four teenagers in a car and you have a prescription for immature, irresponsible behavior.'' Driver's ed. classes don't help much: studies show that formal training doesn't reduce crashes. But the new laws apparently do. In the first states to adopt them, teen crashes dropped by up to 16 percent.

Kids, being kids, are crying ""age discrimination,'' writing letters to legislators and holding debates in school. Fifteen-year-old Erin Ruth worries that Georgia's restrictions on the number of passengers in a car will mean the end of double-dating - and, more seriously, could discourage the use of designated drivers after drinking parties. Other teens say the new rules would have kept them stuck at home, ruining their high-school experience. ""If they passed the law when I was 16, I wouldn't have been able to be on the tennis or soccer teams,'' says Brian Oxner, 18. Complains 13-year-old Debbie Hyde of Mathews, N.C.: ""We could get out of a movie at 9:30 [and] have to call our parents to pick us up.''

Life's tough when you're too young to vote. Legislators have learned that safety sells with parents. (Even the powerful liquor lobby hasn't been able to stop 14 states from reducing the threshold for drunken driving from the traditional 0.10 blood-alcohol content to a stricter 0.08 in the last few years.) And not every teenager sees the crackdown as the first step toward martial law. ""I don't have a problem giving up my rights to ensure other people are safe,'' says 17-year-old Adi Hermoniof Parma, Ohio. Even if it means a few more years of cruising the strip in the passenger seat.