Md., Va. Aim Bills At Young Drivers
Measures Would Ban Texting, Raise Licensing Age

By Fredrick Kunkle and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

RICHMOND, Feb. 10 -- Maryland teenagers might have to wait longer before getting a driver's license, while those in Virginia could be asked to pocket their cellphones, as proposed safety measures in the general assemblies of both states target the youngest and riskiest drivers.

Other measures under consideration in Virginia would tighten seat-belt laws and prohibit all drivers from reading or writing messages on cellphones and messaging devices.

Virginia's House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed a bill that would ban texting while driving. Safety advocates pushed for the bill, and an organization that represents telecommunications companies took no position.

"We are very concerned about the dangers of texting on a 2-by-2-inch screen while driving 70 miles per hour," said Martha Meade, manager of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Backers cited a study by the University of Utah showing that drivers are four times more likely to have an accident while using a cellphone, and a driver who is texting is six times more likely to crash. Other studies showed that although many people admitted to sending messages while driving, a larger number thought the practice should be outlawed.

"People really got the message that texting is very dangerous,'' said Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax), who introduced one of the texting bills this year. "People understand you have to use fingers and hands, and it's much more dangerous than using a cellphone."

A similar prohibition is under discussion in Maryland. There, lawmakers also took up a bill that would raise the age for teenagers to obtain a learner's permit from 15 years, 9 months old to 16 years. Teenagers would also have to wait until they are six months past their 16th birthday to obtain provisional, restricted licenses. They could not get a full license until they turn 18.

Teen drivers who have provisional licenses and are not driving with a parent or guardian would also have to get home earlier. The deadline would move from midnight to 11 p.m., and penalties would be stiffened for those who break the rules.

Two teens told the committee that the restrictions would make it harder for conscientious teens to take part in sports and other school activities.

"Many students would like to be more active in their schools but they cannot commit because they do not have transportation," said Mark Ritterpusch, 15, who spoke on behalf on the Maryland Association of Student Councils. He was joined by Chris Casey, 16.

Virginia senators also proposed a clampdown on teen drivers. The Senate passed a measure sponsored by Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax) that would prohibit teenage drivers from using cellphones while driving, and it would also make the violation a primary offense, allowing police to stop drivers on suspicion of violating the ban.

Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), speaking out against the cellphone ban for teenage drivers, said police could stop almost any driver talking on a cellphone on the pretext that they appeared to be young. Similar objections were raised about a bill that would make it a primary offense to fail to wear a seat belt in the front seat.

Also addressing teen driving is legislation that would require parents in Northern Virginia to attend a driver-safety class with their child -- a measure that even its backers anticipate could make some parents groan.

The bills -- sponsored by Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) in the House and by Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) in the Senate -- would make parents or guardians attend a class on driver safety that lasts at least 90 minutes.

In both states, lawmakers are targeting those who drink and drive.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is urging passage of several laws to curb drunken driving, particularly among repeat offenders and drivers younger than 21.

On Tuesday, the Virginia House passed a bill 91 to 7 that requires first-time DUI offenders to equip their vehicles with breath-testing machines for six months. The House passed the bill last year, but it failed in the Senate. The car cannot start if the machine registers a blood alcohol concentration higher than .02. The legal limit in Virginia is .08.

The machines are already required for a second DUI offense, for first offenders with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 or higher and offenders who violate terms of a restricted license.

Del. Kenneth R. Melvin (D-Portsmouth) opposed the bill, arguing that it would punish "soccer moms," "grannies" and others who were barely over the legal limit.

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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