Maryland House Advances Teen Driving Bills

March 22, 2005

The House of Delegates gave its preliminary approval this week to a package of bills that tightens rules governing young drivers, in an attempt to cut down the number of grisly teen crashes.

“This is not a silver bullet for every accident,” said Delegate Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the committee that handled the five bills. “But I have asked state police over and over what is the No. 1 cause of teen accidents in the state of Maryland, and the answer is inattention and inexperience.”

In particular, a major cause of distraction for young drivers is young passengers, McIntosh said. In lively floor debate, she defended the portion of the package that would ban young people from carrying minor-aged passengers during the first five months of their 18-month provisional license period. The only exception allowed would be siblings and other relatives with the same address as the driver.

Other bills in the package would keep young people with learner or provisional permits from using cell phones while they drive. Also included is a bill from Gov. Robert Ehrlich that would require drivers to hold a learner’s permit for five months, up from the current requirement of four months, before getting their provisional licenses. The minimum age to get a learner’s permit, 15 years and 9 months, would remain the same.

Another bill from the governor would stipulate that while drivers hold a provisional permit, they could lose their licenses for 90 days if they are ticketed for not wearing a seat belt or for violating the midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew. Those offenses, as well as traffic violations, would cause the provisional license clock to restart. Drivers must have a provisional license for 18 months before qualifying for a full drivers license.

A third bill from Ehrlich is still being considered by a House committee. It would revoke the licenses of drivers under 21 who are convicted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The license would be revoked for three years or until the driver turns 18 — whichever time period is longer.

But it was the restriction on passengers under the age of 21 that generated the most debate. Several delegates argued that young drivers should be able to ferry other young people to and from school and part-time jobs, work-study programs and volunteer firefighting duties. Some lawmakers argue that the bill discriminates against poor families that can’t afford cars and those in rural areas without access to public transportation.

McIntosh argued that opening up the bill to those exceptions would gut the legislation and make it unenforceable by state and local police. Amendments to allow the exceptions were voted down.

Efforts to allow parents to sign a permission form exempting their children from the law failed as well.

“Perhaps we should stop writing laws to punish good teens and good parents, so we can get to the 2 percent of those who might be causing problems,” said Delegate Herb McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, as he spoke against restricting minor passengers. “Parents are best equipped to make this decision, and you don’t want to take away that authority.”

Twenty-six other states restrict young drivers from carrying minor passengers, including Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. The periods generally range from the first three to six months of a provisional driver period.

A similar measure has been approved by the Maryland Senate.

Ehrlich’s office says people between the ages of 13 and 20, were killed in vehicle accidents in Maryland in 2003, and that one in five teen drivers is involved in a crash in his first year of driving.

Nationally, more teens are killed on the roads than in any other circumstances.

McIntosh, quoting Maryland State Police statistics, said that in 2003, 16- to 20-year-olds made up 7 percent of drivers but 22 percent of traffic deaths.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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