House OKs restrictions on teen driving licenses More adult oversight among proposals

March 26, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

You can still drive your Chevy to the levee -- or the late-night movies -- but your mom may have to come along.

Teen-agers in Maryland would have to drive longer with adult supervision and wait an additional six months to get their permanent licenses under legislation that is moving toward final passage in the General Assembly.

The House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly yesterday to pass the reforms, while the Senate gave preliminary approval.

The new restrictions, although more modest than originally proposed, are being pushed by lawmakers in hopes of saving lives and preventing injuries among the youngest -- and most hazardous -- drivers on the road.

On highways and streets across Maryland, roadside memorials made of simple crosses, silk flowers and teddy bears mark the places where young people have died.

"The accident rate among young drivers remains just staggering," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, who noted that traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year-olds.

Alarmed by the statistics, states across the nation are instituting "graduated licensing" programs that give youths additional driving privileges as they get older and gain experience.

Maryland adopted an early form of graduated licensing in 1979. But lawmakers say tougher standards are needed to ensure more on-the-road training for novice drivers.

A key provision of the legislation would require youths to keep their learner's permits for four months before getting their licenses -- up from two weeks now. With a learner's permit, a young driver must be accompanied and supervised by an adult. They still could receive the permits at 15 years and 9 months.

The other significant change is that once teen-agers received their provisional licenses, they would have to wait 18 months for permanent ones -- up from one year. With provisional licenses, youths must be home by midnight. But the General Assembly rejected the most controversial proposal: rolling back the curfew to 10 p.m.

Lawmakers relented, Stone said, after teens complained they would no longer be able to go with their friends to such popular long movies as "Titanic."

The changes mean that youths with clean driving records would have to wait until they were five months shy of 18, at the earliest, before they could advance to full licenses.

The new standards would not just be tougher on teens. Under current law, adults have only to pass a driver's test to get their licenses, even if they've spent minimal time behind the wheel. The legislation would require all new drivers to take driver's education classes and use provisional licenses for 18 months, though adults would be spared the curfew.

Provisional drivers also would face greater penalties if they got tickets for traffic violations. They would be sent to a driver improvement course after their first offenses, have their licenses suspended after the second and lose them after the third.

Some senators suggested yesterday that more extensive driver education programs are needed. Under the legislation, required driver education courses would still involve just 30 hours of classroom instruction. However, the bill would add a requirement for six hours of on-the-road training.

Speed, driver error and alcohol are usually the culprits in accidents among teen drivers.

Sixteen-year-olds with new driver's licenses are 10 times more likely to have an accident than 35-year-olds, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And while youths make up only 7 percent of the nation's driving population, they're involved in 14 percent of alcohol-related fatal accidents.

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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