Notes and nonsense

February 20, 2005

FROM THE FOLKS who brought us extra-secure driver's licenses with embedded text and multicolored holograms comes this surprising approach to teen safety: the notarized permission slip from Mom or Dad.

Don't laugh.

Apparently, top officials at the Motor Vehicle Administration have a lot of confidence in public notaries. Or perhaps, despite all these years of crusading against forged documents, they believe teens would never think to fake a note from home.

Here's the background: The General Assembly is considering legislation to restrict passengers under age 18 in cars driven by teens. It's a sensible measure that addresses a significant problem - distracted young drivers. The most common cause is having fellow teens in the car with them. It's a big reason why youngsters are disproportionately involved in accidents. The results can be fatal whether the teens are in the driver's seat or riding along.

But fear not, parents - the bill is a modest proposal. It applies only to the first 180 days of a teen's provisional license and exempts relatives living in the same house. And it's a secondary offense. That means a police officer can't pull a teen over for suspicion of driving with underage passengers. The driver can only get in trouble if pulled over for a different infraction, such as speeding or running a stop sign. Currently, 21 states have a similar restriction, including nearby Virginia.

But somehow that's not modest enough for the MVA. During a hearing last week, the agency's administrator endorsed the bill - but only if it allows for a notarized waiver. No other state has such a system, and the bill's supporters suspect the MVA may be trying to kill the legislation with a ridiculous loophole.

That doesn't make much sense, because the Ehrlich administration has its own bills aimed at the teen driver problem. The administration wants to, among other things, extend the learner's permit period from four months to six months and mandate that any driver under the age of 21 convicted of a drunken or drugged driving offense have his or her license suspended for at least three years or until age 21, whichever is longer.

Those measures are helpful, too, but safety advocates believe Maryland's lack of a restriction on minor passengers in teen-driven cars is the more pressing need. A House environmental matters subcommittee is expected to vote on the proposal this week. They have our permission to pass the bill without any silly amendments.

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