Kansas House rejects 15-year-olds with farm permits driving to church

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Rural legislators rejected a bill to legalize teenagers with farm permits driving to church because their colleagues wanted the age set at 15 instead of 14 years old.

The bill started as an attempt from Kansas lawmakers to fix an oversight in a law from two years ago, but one legislator warned they were opening “a can of worms” by debating restrictions on teenage drivers.

Multiple rural Republicans who supported setting the age at 14 joined with an explanation of vote by Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, who called the version of the bill at 15 “anti-agriculture.” After that, more than two dozen legislators, mostly rural Republicans, flipped their votes to “no.”

That resulted in a coalition of mostly Democrats and rural Republicans voting down House Bill 2523 on Thursday in a 48-72 vote, even though the chamber gave it initial approval on Wednesday.

Lawmakers were trying to fix an oversight

Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Basehor, said House Bill 2523 “corrects something that we started two years ago.”

“It fixes confusion between farm permits and restricted licenses in regards to allowing our young drivers to drive back and forth to religious events and church events,” he said.

Johnson was referring to the Legislature’s 2022 Senate Bill 446, which allowed 15-year-olds with restricted licenses — but not teens with farm permits — to drive to religious activities. That law was inspired by a Salina pastor and father of six children who told lawmakers that he wished his teenage daughter could drive her siblings to youth group on Wednesday nights.

“We missed the fact that there is also the farm permit,” Johnson said.

That means under current law, teens with restricted licenses can drive to church at age 15 but youths with farm permits have to wait until they turn 16.

As originally proposed, HB 2523 would have allowed children with farm permits to drive to church at age 14. But the House Transportation Committee changed it to 15.

House debated whether to set the age at 14 or 15

Rep. Tory Marie Blew, R-Great Bend, sparked debate with a proposed amendment to change the bill back to 14. It ultimately failed in a 54-67 vote.

“I believe if you can have a farmers permit at 14, then you should be able to drive to a religious organization,” Blew said.

Rep. Shannon Francis, R-Liberal, said lawmakers were opening a “can of worms” with the discussion of ages when drivers can take to the roads. Setting the bar in this bill at 15 was intended to be a compromise, he said.

Rep. Jo Ella Hoye, D-Lenexa, called youths hormonally imbalanced and said that while she supports the bill for 15-year-olds, going to 14 is “going too far and, I think, putting young Kansans in danger.”

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, opposed both the 2022 bill and the new iteration.

He said that “14-year-olds have no business driving across the state at night without any parental supervision, driving 75 miles an hour on an interstate highway, whether they’re going there for the purpose of school, church, Boy Scouts or anything else. It’s not only dangerous for the child, it’s dangerous for anybody that’s in the car with him or her and it’s dangerous for the people in the car that they may hit head-on in the middle of the night.”

Rep. Leo Delperdang, R-Wichita, likewise worried that farm kids on the outskirts of the state’s largest city could now drive on busy urban roads to reach suburbs on the other side. Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, D-Prairie Village, pointed to rush-hour traffic in the Kansas City metro.

“There are a lot of adults out there that have no business driving on 435, let alone 14-year-olds,” Stogsdill said. “This is insanity for urban areas here, and you’re really putting those kids at risk.”

Blew was dismissive of criticism that the amendment would allow 14-year-olds to drive across cities or counties to attend a church event.

“Last I checked, we don’t legislate parenting,” she said. “So parents are going to be the ones letting their kids do what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Rep. Eric Smith, R-Burlington and a Coffey County undersheriff, told his colleagues that he was thinking of accidents he has worked and kids with farm permits.

“You have to remember that these kids don’t have experience,” he said. “They haven’t been tested, and when they are tested, they often don’t know what to do.”

“We’ve got to keep parameters on this a little bit, I’m begging you,” Smith added.

Rep. Adam Smith, R-Weskan, who introduced the original bill, seemed surprised at the debate.

“Sometimes it’s the simplest bills that you kind of get wrapped around the axle on,” he said.

He said he was trying to simplify and create consistency, as the statutes are complicated on what drivers are permitted to do.

“A lot of these kids do have a lot of experience,” Smith said of driving tractors or farm trucks in the pasture before age 14.

Blew also seemed surprised by the debate.

“Welcome to the wild west,” she said. “We do things differently in western Kansas.”

As reported in the Topeka Capital Journal

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