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Va. Bill Would Bar Cell Phone Use by Teen Drivers

Measure Approved by Senate Transportation Panel Would Outlaw Even Hands-Free Devices

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page B01

RICHMOND, Jan. 20 -- The Virginia Senate's Transportation Committee approved a bill Thursday that would bar young drivers from using cell phones.

The proposal, backed by several Northern Virginia senators concerned about a rash of deadly accidents, would require teenagers, some of the most voracious users of cell phones, to pull over before making calls -- even if they plan to use a hands-free device.

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Sen. James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. (R-Fairfax), who is sponsoring the measure along with Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun), said many of the recent accidents on Virginia roads involved activities already illegal, including speeding and drinking. But with renewed attention on the dangers driving poses for teenagers, the two decided to reexamine laws for potential improvements.

"It's very hard to legislate, 'don't be stupid, make good choices,' " O'Brien said. At the same time, he said, parents "would like to see us do something."

Virginia already has more stringent requirements on teenage drivers than Maryland, the result of an overhaul of teenage driving laws led by the two senators in 2001. The changes imposed then include a limit on the number of passengers that can be driven by provisional license holders, who are younger than 18.

Teenagers must be 15 1/2 years old to get a learner's permit, and young drivers must also spend 40 hours driving with a parent or guardian before getting a license. There is also a midnight to 4 a.m. curfew for drivers under age 18.

"Virginia has done a good job, but certainly we still have a problem on our hands," said Susan Ferguson of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Sixteen-year-olds are still crashing and dying in record rates."

She said numerous studies have shown that young people tend to be more scattered while driving than adults, and a ban on cell phones makes common sense.

"They're young, they're inexperienced. The last thing you would want them to do is to have additional distractions," she said.

Teenagers, many of whom consider their cell phones a critical tool for their social lives and a convenient way to check in with their parents, offered a mix of opinions yesterday about the proposed law.

Jesse Shapiro, 17, a senior at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County, said he sometimes chats on the phone while driving but imposes his own safety rules. He keeps conversations short and doesn't answer calls if it's raining or snowing. He also avoids talking on the phone if he is in an unfamiliar area -- unless he's calling his father to ask for directions.

But Shapiro said he doesn't believe he is endangering himself or others when he makes a quick call to check in with his parents or a friend.

"I think the bill would not be that great," Shapiro said. "I call my friends if plans change, and I call my parents. It's nice to have a cell phone."

Patrick Drewer, 17, a senior at Oakton High School who keeps his cell phone handy while driving to and from school each day, thinks the proposed law "would not be a good idea." He said that he chats with friends while driving, but that in difficult conditions, such as Wednesday's snowstorm, he doesn't make or take calls.


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