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Ehrlich Targets Teen Road Fatalities

Curbs Proposed On DUIs, Permits

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page B01

A recent spate of teen deaths on Maryland's roads has added vigor to legislative efforts to crack down on unsafe youth driving, with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. adding his name yesterday to a growing list of state leaders calling for greater restrictions.

The Republican governor unveiled a package of bills aimed at curtailing irresponsible teen driving, including a measure to revoke for as long as five years the licenses of those younger than 21 who are convicted of drunken driving. Speaking to hundreds of students in a gymnasium at Largo High School in Prince George's County, Ehrlich told the teenagers that he worries "every day" about such driving deaths.

The governor and his wife, Kendel S. Ehrlich, appear at Largo High School to announce a set of new initiatives to keep youth drivers safe. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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"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, who was flanked by 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."

Ehrlich's proposals add to a battery of bills before the General Assembly this year aimed at cutting road deaths among teens. Several measures that have failed repeatedly in the legislature will be proposed again this year, including a bill that would prohibit new drivers from carrying teenage passengers who aren't relatives during the first six months of their provisional license. Twenty-five states, including Virginia and the District, have some form of passenger restriction on novice drivers.

Two Montgomery County delegates, Democrats William A. Bronrott and Adrienne A. Mandel, have said they plan to introduce legislation increasing the amount of supervised driving time required for new drivers. Bronrott said he also will introduce a bill to prohibit teenagers from using cell phones while they drive on a provisional license. Sens. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) and J. Robert Hooper (R-Harford) said yesterday that they will introduce similar measures in the Senate.

Under Ehrlich's proposals, drivers younger than 21 who are convicted of driving while intoxicated would surrender their licenses for three years or until they are 21, whichever is longer.

The governor also proposed extending the period new drivers must have a learner's permit from four months to six, and to suspend provisional licenses for 90 days if the drivers are cited for not wearing a seat belt or driving after the state's midnight curfew.

In his first foray into teen driving legislation, Ehrlich drew compliments from some lawmakers who have fought for years, often unsuccessfully, to reduce reckless youth driving. Bronrott called the proposals "three positive steps forward," adding that more steps are needed "to truly bring this crisis under greater control."

David F. Snyder, vice president and assistant general counsel for the American Insurance Association, said efforts to increase supervised driving time -- such as the proposal to extend the duration of a learner's permit -- have been shown to cut youth traffic deaths. Stricter penalties can help, he said, as long as they are enforced.

"The key components of getting drivers started right are nighttime driving, passenger restrictions and as long a period of supervised and limited driving as possible," Snyder said. Stricter penalties "are a factor, but frankly, if a penalty isn't really enforced, then it really doesn't achieve what people are intending."

Traffic accidents involving teenage drivers have killed at least 17 people in the Washington area since September. Many of the accidents involved speed or alcohol.

Motor vehicle accidents were by far the leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24, according to 2002 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics.

Ehrlich's announcement came on a daylong sweep through Prince George's that included a luncheon address to Chamber of Commerce, a meeting with the County Council, a grant announcement in Hyattsville and a town hall meeting in Upper Marlboro.

In his meeting with the council, Ehrlich took questions on crime and education.

In response to a question from council member Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) about state aid for school construction, he said legalization of slot machine gambling would provide a windfall.

"Our commitment is to put another $100 million, just from that revenue stream into school construction alone," he said.

Council member Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills), describing a "state of emergency" on crime, asked about the prospects for help. The county has high rates of homicide and auto theft.

Ehrlich said his administration has worked on a number of crime-prevention initiatives but acknowledged that more needs to be done to address the connection between drugs and violence.

Staff writer Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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