Longstanding efforts to bolster restrictions on teenage drivers in Maryland moved into new territory yesterday, as the House of Delegates granted preliminary approval to several curbs on young motorists that lawmakers have shot down in previous years.
But a spirited and lengthy debate on the House floor yesterday suggested that at least one of the five bills -- a measure prohibiting novice drivers from carrying teenage passengers -- faces a tight final vote tomorrow, supporters said.
Del. William A. Bronrott sponsored several teen driving bills.
(Courtesy of William A. Bronrott)
Transcript: Del. William A. Bronrott (D) discussed proposed legislation aimed at curbing teen traffic fatalities in Maryland.
Accident Victims: The number of young people killed in traffic accidents has surged in the Washington region.
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"In past years, we basically made it around the first bend in the track," said Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery), a sponsor of several teen driving bills. "Now we've finally headed into the last bend, but we're not there yet."
A recent surge in traffic deaths involving teenagers across the state, particularly in the Washington suburbs, has given momentum to efforts to restrict young drivers. For several years, a bill to restrict the number of teenage passengers has died in the House, which has also spiked measures prohibiting new teenage drivers from using cell phones.
Yesterday, the House gave preliminary approval to those measures, as well as bills that would:
Extend the period a young driver must hold a learner's permit from four to five months.
Require teenagers with a provisional license to restart the 18-month provisional period if convicted of driving without a seat belt or violating Maryland's midnight curfew for young drivers.
Increase the practice driving hours required with instructional permits from 40 to 60.
The Senate last month approved a version of the passenger restrictions bill, and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee yesterday forwarded to the floor a teen cell phone ban. Bills extending the learner's permit period, increasing penalties for provisional drivers who violate seat belt or curfew laws, and increasing practice driving hours are pending in the Senate.
The passenger restrictions bill forwarded yesterday would prohibit teenage drivers from carrying non-family teenage passengers during the first five months of their 18-month provisional license. It elicited sharp criticism yesterday from several delegates, who said in floor debate that the bill would unduly harm low-income and rural teenagers who depend on friends for rides to work, school functions and athletic activities.
"It's time we start focusing on laws that don't punish good kids," said Del. Herbert H. McMillan (R-Anne Arundel).
Del. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) proposed an amendment yesterday that would have tacked a long list of exemptions onto the bill.
"I understand that you're trying to get teenagers to be better drivers," Zirkin said during the floor debate. "But to say, 'You can't take your neighbor to school,' that doesn't get at this issue."
Bronrott, a co-sponsor of the bill, called the amendment "a poison pill."
"It will gut the intent of the legislation," Bronrott told members before the House killed the amendment, 91 to 38.
Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), who led the effort on the House floor to pass the bills, said that she believes the passenger restriction bill has sufficient votes to be approved tomorrow but that "it will be a tight vote."
Some opponents have been swayed to support the passenger restrictions and cell phone prohibition by a recent rash of teenage road deaths.
The issue also gained broader support after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) proposed several measures aimed at curbing teenage road deaths, bringing into the fold of supporters some Republicans who had opposed similar measures in the past. An Ehrlich bill that would sharply increase penalties for teenagers convicted of drunken driving is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.
Since September, at least 19 teenagers have died in the Washington area in accidents involving teenage drivers. Traffic safety experts say that limiting the number of teenage passengers is the single most important measure in the five-bill package because inattention causes more teenage accidents than any other cause. The District and Virginia, as well as 23 other states, have similar laws.