A package of bills to restrict novice teenage drivers advanced in the Maryland House of Delegates last night, riding a wave of outrage over a recent rash of teenage traffic deaths to easily clear a committee that has defeated similar measures in past years.
In clearing the Environmental Matters Committee, the bills passed their most significant challenge yet. But sponsors said at least one of the measures -- a bill prohibiting inexperienced teenage drivers from carrying teenage passengers -- will likely encounter robust opposition in the full House.
That bill, sponsored by Montgomery County Democrats William A. Bronrott and Adrienne A. Mandel, has died in several previous sessions in the House.
Opponents say the measure is unjustly restrictive, particularly for poor or rural teenagers who need friends to transport them. Supporters of the measures said yesterday's vote marks a high point for efforts to cut down on teenage traffic deaths.
"We have far surpassed where we have been on this issue for years," Bronrott said. "The time is long overdue to get these laws on the books."
The committee last night unanimously approved measures:
Extending the period a teenage driver must hold a learner's permit from four to five months.
Requiring teenagers with a provisional license to restart the 18-month provisional period if convicted of driving without a seat belt or driving after Maryland's midnight curfew for young drivers.
Increasing the practice driving hours required of teenage drivers with instructional permits from 40 to 60.
A fourth bill, prohibiting cell phone use during the 18-month provisional period, passed on a 17 to 3 vote. The Senate approved a similar measure last week.
The passenger restrictions encountered the most resistance, passing 15 to 5 with several legislators from rural districts voting against the measure. The bill was amended to consider the violation a "secondary offense," meaning teenagers could be cited for violating the new law only in conjunction with other violations. The cell phone restriction is also considered a secondary offense.
A similar passenger restriction bill cleared the Senate last month. The House bills are scheduled for a vote before the full House next week.
The District and Virginia, as well as 23 other states, have similar laws prohibiting novice teenage drivers from carrying teenage passengers. Driving safety experts say it is the most important of all of the bills pending in the Maryland legislature, because teenage passengers add exponentially to the distractions in a car.
Recent brain-development studies by the National Institutes of Health have shown that the region of the brain that inhibits risky behavior is not fully developed until age 25. Advocates say the study helps show that young drivers are far more susceptible to distractions than others and need to be restricted.
The bills' passage yesterday "sends a signal that we have a growing crisis in teen deaths," said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which has lobbied for the bills. "It's carnage on the highways being committed by teens."
The bills have failed to gather much support in the past. But a rash of teenage deaths in the Washington region last fall focused attention on the issue, as did the endorsement of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who introduced several teenage-driving bills. Two of his measures -- extending the learner's permit period and punishing young drivers who violate seat belt and curfew laws -- won committee support yesterday.
Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said she was very pleased by the bills' passage: "The bottom line is, this gives parents the ability to say to their children: 'It's against the law.' "
Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.