State bill would ban teens from driving peers

Accidents are more likely with passengers, data show

January 31, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Hoping to stem the rising tide of teen-age deaths on the roads, scores of Maryland lawmakers pledged their support this week for a bill that would prohibit young drivers from transporting other teen-agers in their cars for the first six months of their licenses.

The legislation is backed by safety groups and parents whose children have died in car crashes. One of them is Kathryn Oroszo, whose son, Michael Vito, died five years ago this week on a narrow country road in Calvert County.

Vito, who was 17, had two friends in his yellow Mustang as he tore down the winding Rousby Hall Road at speeds approaching 91 mph. He was racing a friend in another car loaded with teen-agers when he swerved into the path of a U-Haul truck. His car was crumpled into a horseshoe.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's editions misspelled the name of Kathryn Orosz, who supports legislation that would prohibit new drivers from transporting other teen-agers for six months.

The driver of the U-Haul was in a coma for 18 days before he died. Vito and his two passengers were killed instantly. Oroszo believes her son and his passengers would still be alive if Maryland had tougher restrictions on young drivers.

"They had no fear, but teen-agers are not exempt from death," she said. "There are always distractions: They're talking, they're smoking, they're dealing with traffic and they're trying to be cool through all this."

The legislation was introduced in the state Senate and House of Delegates this week and will get its first hearing Wednesday. The bill includes an exemption that would allow teen drivers to transport siblings or other young relatives. More than 40 delegates and 10 senators have signed on as sponsors, and the bill appears to have strong momentum.

Statistics indicate that teen drivers are more likely to be involved in a crash when transporting passengers than when driving alone. The more passengers, the greater the risk. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds driving alone have 1.6 crashes per 10,000 trips. With three or more passengers, the crash rate jumps to 6.3 per 10,000 trips.

"There's more we need to do to protect our children from the No. 1 threat to their lives," said Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat, referring to statistics that show traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for those ages 16 to 19.

"We need to have the passenger restriction for this very brief period of time so these least-experienced, highest-risk-taking drivers get more time behind the wheel before they put themselves in situations that are, in effect, rolling party barges on our highways," Bronrott said.

Similar proposals failed to pass in recent years, but supporters believe several tweaks give the measure a better chance this year. Previous versions did not have the exemption for family members, which led to some concern about how siblings of teen drivers would get home from school. Some earlier versions also placed the restriction on drivers for a year, but that, too, met resistance.

Advocates for the restriction said they were reluctant to compromise, but they say even a watered-down version of the bill will save lives. They also say six months - the length of the restriction under the current bills - is not too much of a burden for new teen drivers.

"Someone said to me it's really inconvenient to restrict teen-agers from carpooling their friends or brothers and sisters," said Jackie Gillan, vice president of the Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "It's really inconvenient planning a funeral, too."

If the bill passes, it would be the first change in Maryland's teen driving laws in five years. Legislation passed in 1999 prohibits drivers under 18 from being on the road from midnight to 5 a.m. Teens must also complete 40 hours of supervised driving while they hold a learner's permit.

Some teen-agers bristle at the idea of another restriction. They question how the new law would be enforced and wonder how passengers could prove they are related to the driver.

"I think it's a joke," said Nick Rossi, 16, who is enrolled in B&E Driving School in Towson. "What are they going to do - pull over everyone who doesn't look like a sibling?"

But other teens interviewed at the driving school this week acknowledge that their full attention isn't on the road when they have friends in the car. Laura Gabell, 16, said the bill seems targeted at teen-age boys.

"I think they feel like they have more to prove," said Gabell, a junior at Towson High School. "Guys are like, `Let me show off in front of my friends.'"

Gabell said she thought she could handle having one other person in the car, but more than that and she'd be worried. "If it's a one-on-one conversation, it's not a distraction. But nevertheless, it's not 100 percent concentration on the road," she said. "With four people in the car, there's a lot of movement."

On a recent driving lesson, Gabell easily navigated the Towson roundabout and nearby suburban streets. Her instructor, Pat Wiglesworth, said he supports the legislation.

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