Law stalls young drivers

Changes effective today make getting a license harder


Megan Knipp, born 16 years ago on Aug. 28, got her Maryland learner's permit May 31 -- three days late because of the Memorial Day weekend.

Not long ago, the Catonsville girl was looking forward to this week as the time when -- after four months of practice with an adult at her side -- she would go for her driver's license.

Oops. Sorry, Megan.

Because of a law going into effect today, she and other Maryland teens now have to drive six months on a learner's permit before they can get a provisional license.

"I could have got my license Sept. 31, but there is no Sept. 31," she said yesterday.

The Oct. 1 change of law means the Roland Park Country School junior -- who had been looking forward to driving solo now until the grown-ups in Annapolis messed up her life -- will have to wait until. Dec. 1 for her rite of passage toward adulthood.

"It's very frustrating because I made a lot of plans to do a lot of activities after school," she said. "I see that like, yes, they did have to do it for a reason, but it's kind of annoying that they had to start with me."

The decision to require a longer learning period is just one in a package of restrictive measures adopted by the General Assembly and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. after a series of fatal accidents involving teenagers.

Isabel Blevins, an instructor at Town & Country Driving School in Rodgers Forge, said the changes have angered many in her current crop of students. "They affect most of our students because most of them were going to get their licenses almost exactly when they were 16 and one month," she said.

Now they will have to be two months older -- just about forever in teenage terms.

Other new restrictions include a ban on the use of cell phones by a driver under age 18 with a learner's permit or a provisional license -- the 18-month restricted license issued to new drivers -- except in case of emergency. Another measure restricts the ability of under-18 drivers to carry their friends as passengers without an adult present for the first five months they hold a provisional license. Others crack down on young drivers who have moving violations.

Collectively, the new restrictions have many teens asking why legislators felt compelled to pick on them.

"I can see where they come from because they're concerned for young people, but not everybody is stupid," said 16-year-old Hilary Heubeck, a Roland Park Country junior who just got her license Thursday. "I don't think most kids on a regular basis are taking 20 to 30 kids in their cars and having a party."

Her classmate Bella Kline, still 15 and driving on a learner's permit, is disappointed that her license eligibility has been pushed from January to March. But the provision that really disturbs her is the one that says that when she does get her provisional license, she is not permitted to have a passenger under 18 for 151 days unless an adult is in the car.

"It's a little harsh," she said.

Blevins, an 11-year veteran in the instructor's seat, disagrees. She said friends in the car are a "huge distraction" for new drivers. "Too often friends are horsing around in the cars and cause an accident," Blevins said.

But Bella and her classmates said adults overlook the positive effects of having a friend in the car. They pointed out that friends can help with directions, alert them to a stoplight changing and point out mistakes without freaking out.

"It's also easier to drive with friends than parents," Bella said.

Teens are more divided on the wisdom of the cell phone ban.

Matt Burke, a junior at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville who squeaked under the wire to get his license in August, said he believes the cell phone ban makes so much sense it should be applied to everybody.

"I've been stuck behind more adults on cell phones than kids," he said.

But Hilary said today's teenagers use cell phones -- as opposed to Mapquest directions or old-fashioned maps -- to find their way around.

"I have no sense of directions whatsoever," she said. "We end up calling. We've become dependent on our cell phones."

The teens also questioned the fairness of a measure that will send them back to Day 1 on their provisional licenses if they commit a single moving violation.

"I could see two or three [violations], but one seems excessive," Matt said.

Attitudes toward the new rules may be influenced by gender. Matt said he believes boys who are affected may be a bit more vehement in opposition.

"It's more unfair to boys," he said. "Even girls say we're better drivers."

That may be what they say when the boys are around, but when they aren't, it's a different story. Bella said the stricter rules make more sense for boys.

"They're so much more irresponsible," she said.

As for Megan, a spokesman for the state Motor Vehicle Administration said that she actually could have taken her license test yesterday because September is a 30-day month. But as of today, she's out of luck until December.

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