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In Md., Deaths and Hard Work Propelled Teen Driving Bills

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page B01

Head ducked deferentially, Del. William A. Bronrott scurried across the expansive floor of the House of Delegates, searching out allies while the clerk droned on in listing dozens of the more than 2,600 bills before the Maryland General Assembly.

Lawmakers chatted and yawned.

Del. William A. Bronrott helped engineer the teen driving bill's passage. "Dying on the highways is not a partisan experience," he said often. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

Accident Victims: The number of young people killed in traffic accidents has surged in the Washington region.
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Full Report

It was 10:30 the morning of Jan. 25, and if experience was any guide, Bronrott had little reason to expect his bill would go anywhere. For years, he and Del. Adrienne A. Mandel had pushed legislation to limit the number of teenage passengers novice drivers could carry. And for years, the two Montgomery County Democrats had gotten lukewarm pledges of affinity. But when voting time came, the measure always fell short.

This year, though, there was the terrible fact of at least 19 teenage road deaths in the Washington region linked to teen drivers since September. There was the brain research that showed that the greatest risk to young drivers was distraction -- particularly the distraction of friends in the car. And there was a constant drumbeat of media attention, summoning the support of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and others who had not backed such measures before.

Somewhere along the way, the low-profile slog of gaining support -- delegate by delegate -- would become a high-stakes campaign, a transformation that said as much about the fickle and haphazard nature of legislating as it did about the alarming number of teenage traffic deaths.

This year, lawmakers would seize on teen driving as they had on drunken driving a generation earlier, seeing it as a bipartisan issue that could score political points and do some good in the process.

"Dying on the highways is not a partisan experience," Bronrott said early in the session, repeating what would become something of a mantra.

In January, the slogan was merely hopeful. By late March, it began to take on the confident ring of truth.

Cultivating Support

"We're coming back this year with the passenger-restrictions bill," Mandel told Del. Rudolph C. Cane on the third day of the legislative session. "What do you think?"

Cane demurred, leaning back on one of the oaken rails that surrounds the speaker's desk on the House floor.

"You know how important this is," Mandel said.

"I can't promise a vote," the Eastern Shore Democrat finally said. "But I won't do anything to hurt the bill."

That was not what Mandel wanted to hear. She needed a vote -- particularly from someone like Cane, a lawmaker sympathetic to the idea but nervous about explicitly supporting it. His rural constituents bridled at the idea of restricting teen passengers, given the broad expanses of the Eastern Shore that some students travel to reach the nearest school.

"I have to accommodate my constituents," Cane explained in a later interview.

In past years, such resistance had helped kill the passenger restrictions bill in the House or in committee, while a similar measure championed by Southern Maryland Democrat Roy P. Dyson sailed through the Senate. Working the measure through the House was critical to getting it onto the governor's desk. Once there, its backers felt new optimism that Ehrlich would sign it.

After all, on Jan. 13, two days into the session, the governor appeared at a high school gymnasium in Bowie packed with teenagers to announce his own package of bills increasing penalties for young drivers who break the law.

"The most irresponsible thing you can do is get behind [the wheel of] an automobile, drive negligently, drive drunk or drive drugged and hurt somebody or kill somebody," said Ehrlich, flanked by first lady Kendel Ehrlich, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) and a cadre of state officials. "You will have killed someone else's son or daughter, and you will have gone a long way toward wrecking your own life."

The sentiment was a familiar one for Bronrott and Mandel. The source was not.

In the past two legislative sessions, Ehrlich had not weighed in on the issue. But many of his fellow Republicans resisted the idea, so Bronrott and others had assumed the governor was not necessarily an ally.

Ehrlich's support "really sparked awareness and interest," Bronrott said after the announcement. "If we could do all of this together, then I see very big steps forward."

Opposition Softens

As if on cue from their party head, some GOP lawmakers from rural areas began to give up the argument that their constituents would be unfairly affected by such legislation.

And some delegates with a libertarian streak, resistant to further government regulation in almost any form, signed on to the bill as the pleas from parents and highway safety advocates grew louder.

By Jan. 25, when Bronrott and Mandel were ready to formally submit the bill, they had 75 co-sponsors, including Cane, the reluctant Eastern Shore delegate. They viewed the number as a small victory in this curious legislative game of oddsmaking: Seventy-one signatures means that a majority of lawmakers agree the bill is a good idea -- and will likely vote for it.

Perhaps a stronger omen came as Bronrott and Mandel marched their legislation to the House clerk's office. Television cameras were there to capture every step. Days later, Comcast handed out teen-driving wristbands emblazoned with the phrase "Drive Think Live."

Making the Issue Personal

The testimony, painful at times, lasted for four hours:

Arturo Betancourt describing the life of his 16-year-old daughter, a passenger killed in a Silver Spring car crash in September.

Kathryn Orosz of Crofton detailing the horrible crash that killed her 17-year-old son on his way home from school in Calvert County in 1999.

Adam Yalowitz, Avi Edelman and Isaac Arnsdorf, students at Montgomery Blair High School, testifying that they -- and other teenagers -- needed tougher laws.

It was a powerful show, and to add hard facts to the mix, Bronrott and Mandel summoned experts from the National Transportation Safety Board, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Safety Council.

Bills are inherently abstract and unemotional -- bland words standing in for larger ideas and human desires and motives. The two delegates needed their colleagues to understand the ground-level support for the legislation, from parents and teenagers.

They needed lawmakers to hear of the grief and heartache caused by car crashes.

That's what the Feb. 9 hearing before the House Environmental Matters Committee aimed to do. In addition to the passenger restrictions bill, the two delegates had introduced measures to restrict cell phone use and increase practice hours required for the newest drivers. These bills, along with Ehrlich's package, all had a hearing that day.

The same panel had killed the passenger bill the previous year. In 2003, the measure cleared the committee only to be sent back for fixes and then die without another vote. This year, Bronrott started his lobbying early, organizing an information hearing in November to brief the panel.

Digging for Grass Roots

To build support for their legislation, Bronrott and Mandel also began turning up at schools and PTA forums on teen driving. Many were in Montgomery County, where parents and students were galvanized by the spate of student deaths in the fall. But the issue caught fire across the state: Editorial writers from Garrett County in Maryland's western panhandle to the Eastern Shore urged lawmakers to do something to curb the deaths of young people on the roads. E-mails and letters poured into legislators' offices.

Much of the pressure was directed at Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), head of the committee that would decide the bill's fate.

In Annapolis, committee chairs are the initial gatekeepers for every piece of legislation that passes through the State House. They wield enormous power over legislation and can withhold bills they dislike. If a committee chairman doesn't like a bill -- or doesn't like a bill's sponsor -- he or she can simply keep it from a vote, without a public explanation. No vote in committee, no vote on the House floor, and a bill dies.

This year, McIntosh signaled early that she would bring the bill to a vote in committee and would champion the measure on the House floor -- if it made it there.

It did, by a wide margin: 17 to 3 on a vote March 14.

Three days later, the bill was up for final approval in the House. Dyson's version of the bill had already cleared the Senate, so a House endorsement was crucial.

Some lawmakers rose to rail against yet another intrusion into the lives of Marylanders, while others urged colleagues to save teenage lives and "vote green" -- a yes vote on the big lighted board in the House.

Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) ordered the clerk to call the roll. The board lighted up with 105 green dots. Only 30 showed red, for no.

It was an extraordinarily strong majority.

There was still work ahead: negotiations with the Senate before the bill would land on the governor's desk, along with the cell phone ban and practice requirements Bronrott and Mandel had sponsored. Two of Ehrlich's three teen driving bills also would clear the General Assembly.

But that vote in March was a moment to savor.

A small, contented smile spread across Bronrott's face as he sat in his seat in the far back of the House chamber, nearly invisible amid all the other lawmakers.

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