Sobriety in the Passenger Seat? Permitted Drivers and Intoxicated Supervisors
It might be hard for parents to imagine they can be charged with a crime if they let their fifteen-year-old with a driver’s permit drive home after a dinner where they had one too many glasses of wine. Some might even argue that it is safer for the teenager to drive than it would be for the parents who consumed alcohol. In some states, the law (or lack thereof) may reflect that logic. In others, supervising drivers of permitted drivers must be sober. The purpose of the “supervising-driver-during-permit requirement” is to have the supervisor present to take control of the vehicle if need be, give learning drivers the benefit of the supervisor’s experience, and generally speaking, help them become safe and responsible drivers. Does all of that go out the window if the supervisor would not be able to drive themselves as the result of alcohol or drugs?
In 2011, the New York state Senate passed “Abbagail’s Law,” enabling punishment of drunk adults who act as the supervisory driver for someone with only a learner’s permit.
“The bill was named for Abbagail Buzard, an 8-year-old girl who was killed in a rollover crash with her underage cousin at the wheel. He only had a Learner’s Permit, and Abbagail’s father, who told police he was too drunk to drive himself, was in the passenger seat, acting as the ‘supervising driver,’” NCNews wrote of the law and the incident that led to it in January of 2012. “Abbagail’s father was drinking at a family event when he decided to recruit the underage cousin to drive to the store for more alcohol. He placed four children including Abbagail in the back seat and climbed in the car, which crashed a short time later, crushing the little girl. Abbigail’s father spent six months in jail for criminal negligence but couldn’t be charged with more serious crimes.”
“Abbagail’s Law” has passed the New York Senate every year since but has surprisingly failed in the New York Assembly every time.
Notwithstanding New York’s inability to pass Abbagail’s Law, due to the potentially dangerous consequences associated with allowing an inexperienced driver to get behind the wheel with an intoxicated supervisor, many states have started to create their own laws mandating that supervising drivers be sober. For instance, in Illinois, learner’s permit holders must accumulate 50 hours of supervised driving, supervised by a parent or an adult age 21 or older with a valid driver’s license, who must be sitting in the front passenger seat and may not be intoxicated.
In North Carolina, if a person merely supervises a driver with a learner’s permit while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, that supervisory adult may be charged with an offense similar to a DUI and may face the very same penalties as if they had personally operated the vehicle under the influence.
Even other countries have recognized the importance of properly supervising learner drivers. In the UK, the law states that somebody supervising a learner driver is “effectively in control of the car.” A survey of the UK showed that nearly a quarter of all drivers did not know that it was illegal to use their cell-phone will acting as the supervisor of a learner driver. Many drivers didn’t know it was also illegal to fall asleep while in a supervisor driver role. In some cases, the supervisor driver faced jail time and civil fines if their learner driver injured another driver on the road.
Under California law, people with learning permits must be supervised by a licensed parent, guardian, spouse or other adult over the age of 25. California, like several other states, however, has not yet addressed whether the “licensed parent, guardian, spouse or other adult over the age of 25” needs to be sober.
On the surface, it seems that the spirit of the current law in ensuring the safety of the minor driver and other drivers on the road could be extended by interpreting the law to mean “sober” supervisors. On the other hand, one possible reason for delays in places like California and New York is that legislators are reluctant to punish people for attempting to avoid driving drunk themselves. However, with the current availability of alternative transportation methods home, other than letting your permitted teenager drive, that reason becomes less likely than it already is as time goes on.