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Crashes Lend Md. Teen Driving Bills an Unfamiliar Prominence

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; Page B04

The appearance of Annapolis lawmakers on national television was perhaps a sign, as was the battery of news cameras that recently bustled through the Maryland State House to document the typically low-profile process of introducing a bill in the legislature.

But perhaps the strongest indicator that the usually sleepy issue of teen driving safety has become a cause celebre in the Maryland General Assembly was the appearance last week of the plastic wristband -- that now-universal symbol of unity behind a cause -- on wrists of lawmakers.

_____Live Discussion_____
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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"Drive-Think-Live," the black bracelets say, signaling that the push for restricting teen drivers may have reached a critical mass of attention.

With Senate and House of Delegates committees scheduled today and tomorrow to take up several bills aimed at keeping teenage drivers safe, the legislation appears to be enjoying early bipartisan support that for years has eluded similar measures, lawmakers say.

"It's definitely gathered steam," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), chairman of a House committee scheduled to hear several bills tomorrow. "My instruction to the committee will be that we can't ignore this issue."

The deaths of at least 17 teenagers since fall in the Washington region in accidents involving teen drivers have been the primary source of momentum for legislation stiffening penalties and requiring more training for teens, backers say.

"The stark reality of what's happened this past summer and fall, the accidents, has sharpened a lot of people's interest in this issue," said Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's), whose bill limiting the number of passengers in a teenage driver's car has a hearing today.

Of equal importance, lawmakers say, is Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s introduction of several bills aimed at countering the recent surge in teenage traffic deaths. The Republican governor's endorsement has generated more attention for the issue and may move some GOP House members who have blocked such bills in the past, legislators said.

"The governor's jumping into the issue has, I think, sent a strong signal across the aisle that these are bills that people of both parties can and should embrace," said Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery), the sponsor of several bills scheduled to be heard tomorrow in the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Ehrlich, who remained essentially silent on the issue during his first two years in office, has introduced legislation to increase penalties for drunk teenage drivers and to extend the state's learner's permit period from four months to six.

Bronrott and Del. Adrienne A. Mandel (D-Montgomery) have submitted three teen driving bills: one that would restrict the number of teenage passengers that teen drivers can carry during the first six months of the 18-month provisional license; one that would increase the amount of supervised driving required for a license; and one that would prohibit teens with a provisional license from using cell phones while they drive.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is scheduled to hear a bill today that would prohibit young drivers with provisional licenses from using cell phones, along with Dyson's bill restricting passengers.

Measures to prohibit young drivers from carrying teenage passengers have failed for 11 years in the General Assembly. Dyson, who first proposed such a measure in 1994, has watched his bills win approval in the Senate for the past two years, only to die in the House.

The District and 24 states, including Virginia, have some form of passenger restriction on novice drivers.

Proposed bans on teen drivers using cell phones have also failed for several years, in part because of concerns about a broader cell phone ban. Other opponents have said the restrictions would merely give police more power to pull over drivers without reducing fatalities significantly.

Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County), who voted against passenger restrictions last year, said support for teen driving bills appears to have grown among GOP lawmakers, though it is "by no means uniform."

"There are people in rural areas that say there is a need to drive, it's not frivolous, and when you restrict that, you restrict people's ability to do what they need to do," Harris said.

If the tide has shifted, it began in September, when five teenagers died in three accidents on a single weekend in Montgomery County.

Bronrott, who has championed such legislation for years, has found himself a regular on local news broadcasts and appeared this month on ABC World News Tonight.

When Bronrott and Mandel took copies of their bills to the legislative clerk to put the bills "in the hopper" for committee assignments, television cameras from local news outlets captured every move. The process is usually invisible and rarely the subject of news. Until this year, the same was true of the bills themselves.

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