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Teen Driving Limits Pass Md. House

Bills Would Restrict Phones, Passengers

By David Snyder and Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 18, 2005; Page A01

Novice teenage drivers would be barred from using cell phones and carrying teenage passengers under legislation approved yesterday by the Maryland House of Delegates, responding to the recent rash of teenage road deaths in the Washington region.

In advancing through the House, a package of five bills cleared what supporters said will be their biggest obstacle. Only minor differences among the House, Senate and governor need to be resolved for the measures to become law.

Del. Ruth M. Kirk (D-Baltimore) tells the story of the 1968 death of her 17-year-old son in an automobile accident. (James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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At least 19 Washington area teen traffic deaths since September helped convert many opponents in the House, which for years has not wanted new limits on teen driving.

"It was the right time to say, 'Enough,' " said Del. Adrienne A. Mandel (D-Montgomery), the passenger restriction bill's lead sponsor. "We've had enough deaths on the road."

Supporters of the legislation have said the state needs to come into line with the growing number of states that restrict the number of young passengers for teen drivers. The District and Virginia, along with 23 other states, have such laws.

The House unanimously approved four bills yesterday, and the fifth -- the passenger restriction -- passed 104 to 30. That veto-proof majority for the passenger restrictions surprised supporters and suggests strongly, they said, that the bill will become law. The Senate has passed a similar bill.

"We are at the beginning of the homestretch," said Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery).

Under two of bills passed yesterday, teenagers with provisional licenses would be barred from carrying non-family teenage passengers during the first five months of the 18-month provisional period, and they would be prohibited from using cell phones while driving, except in emergencies, during the entire period.

Teenagers can get provisional licenses in Maryland once they are 16 years and one month old. In the District, the age is 16 years, six months, and in Virginia, 16 years, three months.

The other bills would increase penalties for provisional drivers who violate seat belt laws or nighttime curfews and would increase the training required for teenagers to receive full driving privileges.

Senate versions of the cell phone ban and the training requirements have not come to a vote, but supporters said they expect them to pass in that chamber.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) supports the aims of the bills. A spokesman, Henry Fawell, said the governor is "keeping an open mind, but will reserve judgment" until the bills reach his desk.

Arturo Betancourt, whose daughter Alicia was killed in a Sept. 24 crash, called the legislation "a very good beginning" that was too long in coming.

"When legislators understand that they can base laws on science and not on popularity contests, we'll have better laws," he said after a news conference yesterday at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring to unveil a Web site with research and other information on teenage driving.

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