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  •   Md. Gets Tougher On New Drivers

    By Charles Babington
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, March 28, 1998; Page A01

    The Maryland General Assembly joined a nationwide trend toward tougher requirements for new drivers yesterday, lengthening to four months the period that teenagers must have a learner's permit and creating harsher penalties for drivers who get ticketed in their first 18 months with a license.

    The new law, which takes effect in July 1999, will oblige teenagers to pass through a nearly two-year period with limited driving rights before getting an unrestricted license -- once considered a 16-year-old's birthright.

    The measure also will require all people seeking their first license to take a driver's education course; previously that rule was not applied to those 18 and older.

    Lawmakers were spurred by national studies showing that inexperienced drivers cause a disproportionate number of serious accidents.

    Drivers ages 15 to 20 make up about 7 percent of the nation's licensed drivers but 15 percent of all traffic fatalities, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

    "The combination of inexperience and immaturity can be deadly," said Stephen Blackistone, a safety board analyst who has testified in Annapolis and other state capitals. He said about 20 states have considered legislation this year involving "graduated licensing," which often involves special curfews or other restrictions for new drivers.

    "In terms of highway safety right now," he said, "it's certainly one of the major issues in state legislatures."

    Virginia and the District have not gone as far as Maryland. Neither jurisdiction imposes a curfew on young drivers, whereas Maryland teenagers start with "provisional licenses" that prohibit driving between midnight and 5 a.m.

    Under the Maryland measure approved yesterday, the curfew will apply for 18 months rather than the current 12 months. That means Marylanders will have to be at least 17 1/2 years old before qualifying for an unrestricted license.

    The key provisions of the bill, which the Glendening administration has endorsed, include:

    Maryland teenagers must have a learner's permit -- which allows them to drive only when they are alongside a licensed adult -- for four months, rather than the current two weeks. They still must be 15 years and 9 months old to obtain a learner's permit, so they must be at least a month past their 16th birthday to obtain a provisional driver's license.

    A provisional license will be issued to all first-time drivers, not just those younger than 18, and will last 18 months, not the current 12.

    Penalties for moving violations, including failure to wear a seat belt, will now be harsher for all those with provisional licenses: mandatory driver's school for a first offense, 30-day license suspension for a second, license revocation for a third.

    The midnight curfew, however, will apply only to those with provisional licenses who are younger than 18.

    This year's Virginia General Assembly endorsed similar sanctions for drivers younger than 18. But in Virginia, unlike Maryland, failure to wear a seat belt is not a "primary offense" that justifies a traffic stop and ticket in the absence of other violations.

    The Maryland Senate yesterday unanimously approved the new license measure, which the House had passed Wednesday.

    A key supporter, Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. (D-Baltimore County), said during a committee hearing: "The studies show that fatalities are so great among young people and inexperienced drivers. We're hoping we can help that situation."

    Many teenagers are less enthralled. "Yecch!" said Caitlin Stone, 16, when told yesterday that teenagers will have to have provisional licenses and be subjected to the midnight curfew for 18 months rather than 12.

    "It's a pain," she said as she and her Annapolis High School classmates poured into the student parking lot. "If you're at a party at night and you've got to take a lot of people home, it's hard to finish before midnight."

    Justin Phillips, 18, agreed. "I think it's kind of dumb," he said of the new measure. "Old people are worse drivers than young people."

    Phillips, who holds a provisional license, acknowledged that he has been ticketed for tailgating and "negligent driving" in his Ford Mustang convertible. Those violations would cost him his license for 30 days under the new law.

    Phillips said he has been punished enough by soaring insurance premiums, which tripled after his two tickets.

    Some Annapolis teenagers questioned whether a longer provisional period will make much difference.

    Even if police officers stop teenagers after the midnight curfew, said 16-year-old Eric Toney, "you just get warning after warning."

    Staff writers Robert E. Pierre and Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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