In an attempt to curb the highest teen driving death rate in the country, the Minnesota House on Thursday passed a bill that would crack down on new teen drivers, restricting both night driving and passenger loads.

"I don't think we should be proud of being Number 1 in teen deaths due to car crashes," said Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, who sponsored the tougher restrictions.

"This helps support parents who give their kids car keys and hold their breath until the child is home safely."

The bill, which faces a Senate vote next week, would bar newly licensed teens from taking the wheel between midnight and 5 a.m. for the first six months unless they were traveling home from work or a school event.

They would not be allowed to carry more than one teenage passenger who was not a sibling during the first six months and no more than three during the second six months.

A series of high-profile crashes recently has created a wave of support for the restrictions that already exist in 46 other states.

"We're reacting to an outpouring from Minnesotans who want this," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, the bill's chief sponsor. "This has been too long coming. This is going to save some lives."

Heart-stopping statistics

The statistics on teen crashes are heart-stopping. According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, traffic accidents are the leading cause of teen death in the state -- more than the next four causes combined. Drivers under 19 years old are involved in one out of every four injury crashes in Minnesota and one of every six fatal crashes.

The nighttime crash rate for Minnesota drivers under age 18 is nearly four times that of adult drivers. Teen drivers were involved in accidents that resulted in nearly 600 deaths between 1994 and 2004.

There's a financial toll, too. In 2002, the state and hospitals combined data and found nearly $11 million in hospital charges for accidents related to 16- and 17-year-old drivers.

The states that have imposed restrictions, Norton said, have seen drops of up to 40 percent in teen-related crashes.

The restrictions are part of a larger transportation policy bill that also would ban all but hands-free text messaging while driving and impose new restrictions on drivers of smaller school buses and vans. Use of cell phones and text messaging are already banned for teen drivers with provisional licenses, with or without hands-free devices.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, who got her driver's license at 14, said she once harbored reservations about imposing restrictions on teen drivers but said that after the recent spate of crash-related teen deaths, "I'm a believer now." The bill had been expected to run into tough opposition, but passed handily, 82-44.

Brian McClung, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's spokesman, said that while Pawlenty wants to review the specific provisions, "the governor supports some additional protections related to teen driving."

Opposition was split along mostly rural-urban lines, with several outstate legislators making the case that the restrictions were too onerous for rural kids.

"It's 80 miles from my house to the closest movie theater," said Rep. David Dille, DFL-Crane Lake. "To go to his prom, my son had to drive 100 miles." The restrictions, he said, "are not practical."

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said he was disappointed in legislators because "lawmakers have forgotten what it's like to be kids."

"This isn't about spoiling kids' fun," said Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud. "I've got five kids, three teens. This is common sense. It's statistics. Forty-six other states have nighttime and passenger restrictions. Minnesota has neither."

'Probably a good thing'

Some teenagers say that restrictions wouldn't be all bad.

John Bennett, 16, just got his driver's license Tuesday and is ready to roll. But he approves of the legislators' action to rein in brand-new drivers after midnight and limit the kids they can pack in a car.

"It seems like a pretty fair deal, because a lot of kids are pretty irresponsible," said Bennett, a sophomore at Edina High School.

Besides, Bennett said with a smile, his parents have already laid down the law -- only one passenger at a time, at least for now.

At 18, Tyler Stromquist-LeVoir of Minneapolis, an Edina High senior, is a two-year veteran of the roads. Given the recent spate of horrific teen driving deaths, he said, "a little more legislation is probably a good thing right now."

Anders Lee, 17, and Paddy Carroll, 16, were headed to baseball practice on Thursday afternoon, with soccer player Ryan Schnorbach, 17, tagging along. The Edina High juniors were a little more resistant to new teen driving rules.

"I think it will be tough to enforce," Lee said.

"It will be a hassle for parents," Schnorbach said, because they'd be forced to ferry teens after midnight. Carroll's take: "If your vision is good and you're sober, that should be enough."

Getting ready to climb into the red Jetta he shares with his brother, Michael Miller, 18, said that the late-night restrictions are "probably a good idea, although I can't remember the last time I was driving at 5 in the morning,"

"Teenagers usually like the idea of freedom when they drive," said Alexandra Romero, 16, an Edina High sophomore.

"Yes, but teenagers are really a big distraction," Miller said. "It's probably a good idea for at least a while, because they're loud and obnoxious and always messing with the radio and stuff like that."

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288 Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455