Politicians unite on Md. teen drivers

Bipartisan effort makes issue top General Assembly priority

February 13, 2005|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Despite all of the political wrangling in Annapolis between Democrats and Republicans over school construction, gambling and even the 2006 gubernatorial race, there appears to be bipartisanship in at least one area -- saving the lives of young drivers.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. declared the issue one of his top priorities of the year. And dozens of lawmakers -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- have signed on as co-sponsors for several of the driving bills in the House of Delegates and the Senate.

The reason is simple: Motor vehicle accidents are the No. 1 cause of death and injury to American teenagers and primarily because of their inexperience, according to state transportation officials.

Lawmakers -- many of whom are parents of teenage children who are about to apply for their learner's permits or licenses -- have been startled by the latest statistics on teen driving.

State transportation statistics show that in 2003:

Of the 651 people killed in vehicle crashes in Maryland, 146 of them or 22 percent were in accidents involving drivers ages 16 to 20.

Nearly half of the drivers ages 16 to 20 who were involved in fatal crashes were not wearing seatbelts.

More than 10 percent of the fatal crashes involving drivers ages 16 to 20 occurred between midnight and 4 a.m.

"The rash of teen driving deaths has opened this door" to change, said Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat who has been pushing for more stringent guidelines for young drivers. "Too many kids have already died.

"I think we now have reached critical mass and found common ground," Bronrott said about state officials. "Critical mass is not achieved overnight or in one year."

The governor and Bronrott have proposed several measures to curb teen crashes, all of which have strong support.

Under Ehrlich's plan, drivers younger than age 21 convicted of operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs would have their licenses revoked for three years or until they turned 21, whichever was longer.

Drivers with provisional licenses caught not wearing seatbelts or at the wheel during curfew hours, between midnight and 5 a.m., could have their permits suspended for 90 days.

Two months longer

In addition to the increased penalties, the governor wants to lengthen by two months the time that teenagers are required to hold learner's permits, which is now four months. The age at which the permit can be obtained would stay at 15 years, 9 months.

Bronrott's proposals would prohibit drivers with provisional licenses from carrying nonfamily passengers younger than age 18 during the first six months of the 18-month provisional period.

And he also wants to ban the use of cellular telephones by drivers with learner's permits or provisional licenses, except in emergencies, and increase the supervised driving hours for those with learner's permits from 40 to 60, including night hours.

"It is clearly time for us to carefully review Maryland law as it pertains to young drivers," said Robert L. Flanagan, the state transportation secretary. "We have to send a message to our young drivers that we mean business."

The Ehrlich administration has proposed amendments to the bills banning cell phones and nonfamily passengers that would allow parents to have their child excluded from those prohibitions.

`Parental opt out'

But lawmakers say that the "parental opt out" would negate the law.

"When you give parents an opt out, they opt out," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Environmental Matters Committee, which heard several of the young-driver bills Wednesday.

"It makes absolutely no sense to approach it that way," McIntosh said. "The reason to pass these bills is to give parents teeth."

And laws give teeth. Opt outs don't.

Case in point, McIntosh said, the legal age to obtain a driver's license in Maryland is 18, but parents regularly sign for their child to apply for a provisional license at age 16.

"The parents have always opted out," McIntosh said.

In 1977, Maryland became the first state to institute graduated licensing to ease teenagers into the driver's seat because of concern about inexperienced motorists behind the wheel.

The three-stage process allows a teen to apply for a learner's permit at age 15 and 9 months; a provisional license four months after obtaining the learner's; and a regular license 18 months after obtaining a provisional.

Other states began to follow, in particular after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 1994 on risky driving among teens and recommended the graduated licensing system.

With rising traffic volume, increased rates of speed and a high rate of teen deaths on the highways, renewed calls are being made for enhanced guidelines that will provide support for young drivers. Their inexperience, inattentiveness and impairment because of passengers and electronic devices are what officials say have led to crashes by young drivers.

`Major factor'

"It certainly has been a major factor in highway deaths in Southern Maryland," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "I'm confident a bill will pass easily in both the Senate and the House."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who has been known for being at odds with the governor on issues, said partisanship will take a back seat on this issue.

Despite their political differences, "members of the legislature are mature, responsible human beings," Busch said.

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