Rougher road ahead for teenage drivers in Md.

Limits on passengers, cell phones to come Oct. 1

April 19, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Every day when school lets out, 15-year-old Justin Boy needs a ride down the road to lacrosse practice.

And every day, he finds one with Alex Viscarra, who is 16 and has had his driver's license for two months.

"I drive around almost everybody," says Alex, a sophomore at Atholton High School in Columbia, from behind the wheel of a silver-colored 2004 Toyota Celica.

Come October, such an arrangement will almost surely be illegal in Maryland. Legislation passed by the General Assembly, widely expected to be signed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., places an array of restrictions on teenage drivers - among them a ban on underage passengers who are not relatives for the first five months a teen has a license. The legislation also bars the state's youngest drivers from talking on cell phones, and it increases the hours they must spend behind the wheel with adult supervision before they get their licenses.

Around the region, student and parent reaction to the package of bills has been mixed. While many applaud the effort to curb fatal accidents, some say the passenger restriction bill will leave teens with working parents unable to participate in extracurricular activities. They argue that it will disproportionately affect poor students and those living in rural areas, and that it will prevent teens from helping friends who have been drinking to get home safely.

"I don't know how well thought out it was," said Nicholas P. Camp, a senior at Catonsville High School and the student member of Baltimore County's Board of Education. "I think the government has much more compelling interests than me driving home someone on the debate team."

Not far enough

But for those whose lives have been touched by tragedy, the bills do not go far enough.

"In this day and age with parents working, what we're going to hear is how this puts a hardship on parents," said Connie Lewis, Atholton's principal. "Having been in a funeral home five times, I have to ask, `What kind of hardship do you want to deal with here?'"

The first time Lewis was in a funeral home, it was for her son, who died in a car accident nine years ago at age 24. The subsequent four times have been for Atholton students. The school has lost a student every year since 2001.

In response to a spate of fatal crashes involving teens, the General Assembly declared its 2005 session the "Year of the Teen Driver," passing with strong bipartisan support five bills in an attempt to improve road safety.

"I hope that it will make adults as well as teenagers stop and think about focusing on their driving," said state Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Montgomery County Democrat and a sponsor of the bill restricting cell phone use.

Biff Scarborough, owner of B&E Driving School in Towson and Baltimore, was elated at news of the passenger restriction bill.

"When kids get together with other kids, it's dangerous," he said.

For Justin, who is due to get his learner's permit in June, the passenger restriction bill will pose an inconvenience, but he says it's possible lifesaving benefits outweigh that.

"It will probably cut down on a lot of things," he said.

His mother, Joyce Boy, said most parents already try to keep their children from driving with friends.

"If it's the law," she said, "it's so much easier to enforce."

Although Boy allows Justin to get a ride to and from lacrosse practice with Alex, she drives him to social activities at night.

"I like doing that," she said. "When they start picking each other up, it makes you very nervous."

Working parents

But not all students have parents available to drive them.

Kameahle Christopher's mother commutes to a job in Philadelphia, leaving the 17-year-old Towson High School junior to get rides to her many extracurricular activities with whomever she can find. Sam Oros, 17 and a senior at Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville, relies on a friend, senior Tara Howard, to drive her home each day.

"We both live in Eldersburg, 45 minutes away," Sam said. "My parents don't get off work until 4:30 or 5. If it weren't for her, I'd be sitting here until then."

Private schools like Mount de Sales generally don't offer busing, one of many arguments the Maryland Association of Student Councils used in unsuccessfully trying to defeat the passenger restriction bill. The group's president, Patrick O'Brien, a senior at St. Mary's Ryken High School in Leonardtown, said it also can be difficult if not impossible for law enforcement officials to determine whether underage passengers are relatives.

"My brother's adopted and from Korea, and my name is Patrick O'Brien," he said. "I'm 100 percent Irish. He's not 16. He doesn't have ID."

At South River High School in Edgewater, the legislation will throw into disarray the system for issuing student parking permits, students and school officials said. With about 1,000 students competing for 150 parking spots, the school gives preference to students who carpool.

Driver's education

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