Now that school is back in session, Maryland public safety officials and lawmakers have stepped up efforts to boost pedestrian safety and prevent car crashes involving teenagers.
Next month, the maximum fine for drivers who fail to stop for a school bus with flashing lights will increase from $500 to $1,000. Another new state law will set a minimum $65 fine for anyone who does not stop for a pedestrian at a crosswalk. It will also remove a requirement that police officers appear in court when drivers challenge such a ticket, which officials said made it harder to enforce the law.
The number of children ages 8 to 15 killed in car accidents nationwide while not inside the vehicles involved increased by 6.5 percent last year, to 392, according to a report this summer by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Many of the victims were struck while walking on the street or riding bicycles.
Proponents of the new laws say harsher penalties are needed. "A little child doesn't have a chance against a 6,000-pound vehicle," said Jackie Gillan, chairman of the Montgomery County Pedestrian Advisory Committee and vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a D.C.-based alliance of consumer and safety groups and insurance companies. "I think sometimes the best way to get the attention of the public is to give them a ticket."
Older children are also at risk, officials said.
Although the number of drivers ages 16 to 20 who were killed last year declined by 4.4 percent from the previous year, there were still 3,571 such fatalities, according to the NHTSA. Crashes involving young drivers killed 2,292 passengers. In all, there were 7,353 fatal accidents involving young drivers last year.
The reason for such accident rates, experts said, is that teenagers tend to speed more often and drive older, less safe cars, especially sport utility vehicles.
"They are risk takers, and they like to explore," said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "Those are great attributes generally, but when you're behind the wheel . . . these become attributes that can kill."
Maryland legislators, including Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery) and Del. Adrienne A. Mandel (D-Montgomery), said they would try to revive an effort to prohibit young drivers from giving rides to teens not related to them during the first six months they have a license.
"What this legislation would do is put an end to rolling party barges that too often cause death on Maryland's highways," Bronrott said.
Mandel said, "We want the teens to develop some experience, some maturity and the sense that they could be driving a lethal weapon."
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research organization, said 61 percent of teenage passenger deaths in 2002 occurred in crashes in which another teenager was driving.
Most states throughout the country have adopted a graduated driver's license, under which full driving privileges phase in for young drivers.
In Maryland, teenagers can get a learner's permit at 15 years and 9 months of age. After four months, 40 hours of driver's education and a road test, they can receive a provisional license. Such a license prohibits driving between midnight and 5 a.m. unless supervised. They can get full licenses after 18 months or once they turn 18. Virginia and the District have similar laws.
But graduated licenses have not been a panacea.
On the first day of school in Prince George's County last month, an 18-year-old driver was killed and two 16-year-old passengers were injured when their SUV overturned near Friendly High School in Fort Washington.
The 17-year-old starting goalkeeper for the Walter Johnson High School boys' lacrosse team died when his car hit a tree in Potomac one late night in May.
And throughout the region in recent months, police have had to deal with a series of crashes involving joy-riding teenagers in stolen cars.
"[We are] trying to make sure that the people who are driving get the message that driving a vehicle is a serious responsibility and you need to pay attention to driving when you're driving," said Capt. Chauncey Bowers, spokesman for the Prince George's County fire and rescue services. "That's not the time to worry about the CD player, the MP3 player or putting your makeup on. Part of the problem with this particular age group is they haven't been driving long enough to realize that driving is a serious undertaking."