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Teen Driving Legislation Passes House

County, schools also refocus efforts three months after spike that left 18 dead.

The Maryland House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved five measures aimed at keeping teenage drivers safe, three months after a rash of accidents in the Washington area left at least 18 young people dead.

Three of the bills were chiefly sponsored by Del. Bill Bronrott (D-16), who represents parts of Potomac and Bethesda.

Bronrott’s bills would prevent teenager drivers from carrying non-family teenagers as passengers for the first five months of their provisional license period; prevent inexperienced drivers from talking on cell phones while driving; and increase from 40 to 60 the number of hours of adult-supervised driving time required during a teen’s learner’s permit period; 10 of those hours must be at night.

“We took a giant step forward toward making this year the year of the teen driver,” Bronrott said in an interview following the bills’ passage. “This success today is a tribute to the families of the victims of the teen driver crashes that occurred in recent months. And I think that their courage and persistence in helping us to drive home the fact that these deaths and injuries are preventable is one of the big reasons why we’ve achieved the success that we’ve achieved today.”

Bronrott said that the bills’ success was naturally bittersweet given the tragic events lent momentum to initiatives that had failed in the past.

“In a way it parallels the success of MADD. It took a national epidemic of drunk driving to be forced into the spotlight for the nation to wake up to the fact that that was the most frequently committed violent crime in our country,” Bronrott said.

In testimony to the House Environmental Matters Committee, which heard the bills, safety experts repeatedly emphasized that reducing teenage driving fatalities requires a multilateral approach, combining driver education, high school education, legislation, law enforcement, and extensive parental involvement.

“There’s no silver bullet, there’s no magic wand. But we need to do what we know is effective,” referring to the many endorsements the bills have received from safety experts. “With the passage of these bills, there will be fewer tragedies and more families kept whole.”

The bills move to the senate March 28 in order to be considered during the 2005 legislative session. They will be heard by the TK committee.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. (R) “will reserve final judgment until the bills reach his desk, since they can undergo a major facelift at anytime during the legislative session,” said Henry Fawell, a spokesman. Fawell added that Ehrlich “has been very active on this [issue]” and “applauds the legislature attempting to address the problem at large.”

The other two bills that passed March 17 were part of the governor’s own legislative package. One would lengthen the learner’s permit period from four to five months and the other would cause the 18-month provisional license period to reset each time a provisional driver is caught in violation of the midnight-5 a.m. curfew or state seat belt law.

Both bills passed the House unanimously.

The legislation comes as parents and educators are working to keep the teen driving issue in the spotlight.

County and school officials announced a comprehensive campaign to address the teen driving issues at press conference last week at James Hubert Blake High School.

One of the teenagers killed during a September weekend that claimed five lives in three separate accidents, 16-year-old Alicia Betancourt, was a Blake student. Alicia was a passenger in a car that crashed. Her father Arturo Betancourt has since become an ardent advocate of teen driver safety initiatives and spoke at the event.

The centerpieces of the campaign are the launch of a “Safe Teen Driving” website, which can be reached both through the county’s website www.montgomerycountymd.gov and Montgomery County Public School’s website www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org, and a partnership between MCPS and GEICO Insurance to distribute information packets to parents in the fall.

“We’re really redoubling our education efforts,” said Brian Edwards, communications director for county schools. “You’ve got prom season coming up, you have graduation season coming up, times that typically have been dangerous in the past on the roads for teenagers.”

Edwards noted that the county high school health curriculum deals with risky behaviors, including unsafe driving. Though rightly in the spotlight right now, teen driver safety is hardly a new issue, Edwards said. “Teen driving dangers have been an issue for a long, long time,” he said. “It’s a constant education issue.”

Working with parents like Betancourt and Perry Mullsteff, whose son Sean died in April, 2004, was a reminder both of the power of individuals to effect change and of the enduring loss that grieving families face, Bronrott said.

“I’m tired of picking up the paper as often as we do and seeing the number of kids killed or injured and knowing that each of those statistics are huge circles of families and friends that are devastated in the aftermath of people that are killed or are left with disabling injuries.”