The D.C. Council adopted the strictest teenage driving law in the region yesterday, effectively pushing up the minimum age for obtaining a full-fledged driver's license from 16 years old to 18.
The new law would put District teenagers through a three-step obstacle course to receive an unrestricted license. Neophyte drivers would require supervision, particularly at night, and the number of passengers who can travel with them would be limited.
Local and national experts say teenage drivers are more prone to accidents because they lack experience behind the wheel.
Maryland, which strengthened its teenage driving law in July, requires drivers who have just turned 16 to use a learner's permit for four months, then receive an 18-month provisional license. Maryland teenagers have to be at least 17 years and 7 months old before they qualify for an unrestricted license.
In Virginia, new drivers can get a permanent driver's license at 16 if they receive a driver education certificate from a state-approved program and have held a valid learner's permit for six months.
D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who wrote the District's legislation and pushed for the restrictions, smiled broadly as the bill was finally approved. It will take effect Sept. 1, 2000, if it is approved by the D.C. financial control board and Congress.
"I'm pleased it was approved unanimously by the council today," Patterson said, adding that her 15-year-old does not share her enthusiasm for the new law. "All the research shows that these laws can save lives."
Some District teenagers, who had been looking forward to that important milestone on the road to adulthood, were disappointed yesterday to learn of the pending restrictions.
Danielle Brock, 17, a senior at Anacostia High School, said that some restrictions on teenagers, such as the District's recently enforced curfew, are good because they protect young people, but that the new driving restrictions don't.
"Some of us have responsibilities," Brock said as she waited in line at an ice cream truck at 18th and P streets SE. "We have jobs to get to. The Metro and the buses aren't always the best. We need to drive."
Currently, anyone 16 or older can obtain a learner's permit by passing the District's written driver's license exam. Learner's permit holders can apply to take the road test. If they pass, they will receive a full license.
Under the new legislation, a 16-year-old would still receive a learner's permit if the applicant passes a written exam. At 16 1/2, teenagers could apply for a provisional permit, which would allow unsupervised driving during the day, but require a licensed adult to be in the car at night. Provisional permit holders could have only family members as passengers.
At age 17, a provisional driver could apply for a full license with restrictions allowing the licensee to drive alone during the day but requiring supervision at night. Provisional drivers would be allowed only two passengers. The final step, full unrestricted licensure, would be bestowed on teenagers when they turned 18 and could show a clean driving record.
Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, hailed the strictness of the D.C. measure. "Maryland has a tough one, but this goes a little bit further," said Anderson, whose organization worked with Patterson to develop the legislation.
Patterson said she hoped Virginia officials would beef up their teenage driver laws to be more compatible with those in the District and Maryland.
Anderson said national figures show that 16-year-old drivers crash at nine times the rate of other drivers and that 17-year-old drivers have collisions six times as often as other drivers. Teenage drivers also are more likely to have accidents between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., which was why Patterson pushed for nighttime restrictions.
"If only one child or one person does not lose their life because of this, I would think the legislation is worth it," said Ronald Monroe, an assistant police chief in the District. He said teenage accidents are mostly attributable to "poor judgment, lack of experience. Our hope is the legislation will make parents and young people more aware of the awesome responsibility and the importance of safe driving."
Patricia Temoney, 15, a 10th-grader at Richard Milburn Academy, said she liked the stricter law.
"I don't feel old enough to drive on my own," Temoney said, as she stood with friends in the 2100 block of Fairlawn Avenue SE. "There are too many people my age getting hurt," Temoney said, drawing nods of agreement from family members and admonishment from her teenage friends to be quiet.
The Safe Teenage Driving Amendment Act of 1999 passed with little debate, while council members saved their more emotional rhetoric for a resolution approving $105.5 million in revenue bonds for the American Red Cross to build a new headquarters in Foggy Bottom. The 10-story building is being opposed by residents in the Northwest community sandwiched between downtown and Georgetown.
The council grudgingly passed a resolution authorizing the bond sale to raise cash for the Red Cross, which wants to build the headquarters at 2025 E St. NW. Foggy Bottom residents have complained that the building would be too large for the site and would block their sunlight and views, but the headquarters would bring 1,200 workers from suburban offices into the District.
"I have great compassion for the Foggy Bottom community," said council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large). "I am not proud of the vote I'm going to cast today for this bond."
The council's resolution, which passed 7 to 5, "recommends" that the Red Cross reduce the height and size of the building. But the recommendations are not binding, and Congress has warned the council not to try to attach conditions to the resolution.
Staff writer Emily Wax contributed to this report.
Under a plan passed by the D.C. Council yesterday, District teenagers would have their driving rights restricted at age 16, with privileges gradually increased until they are 18.
Learner's Permit: Drivers have to be at least 16, may drive only when accompanied by a licensed driver and must have passed written and vision tests.
Provisional Stage: Drivers ages 161/2 with no infractions for six months may drive unsupervised during the day but must be supervised by a licensed driver from 11 p.m to 6 a.m. weekdays and midnight to 6 a.m. on weekends. Drivers also must have 40 hours' driving experience certified by a parent or guardian.
Full License with Restrictions: A driver age 17, reaches this stage after completing 12 consecutive months without a moving violation and at least 10 hours of nighttime driving experience may drive from 6 a.m. to midnight unsupervised. Driver may have two passengers. At age 18 the driver may receive a full license with no restrictions.
SOURCE: D.C. Council