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New Teen Driving Laws Take Effect

Passenger and cell phone restrictions, increased practice among provisions.

No one celebrated the anniversary that passed Saturday and Sunday.

A year earlier, five teenagers died in three separate car crashes in Montgomery County between 11:57 p.m. Friday, Sept. 24 and 1 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 26.

The weekend was the beginning of a series of gruesome accidents in the Washington area — some 18 young people died between September and December.

Each heart-wrenching story was different, and yet they all had some of the following in common, a mix-and-match puzzle with four elements: speed, distraction, inexperience and alcohol.

The last weekend in September fell only one day earlier on the calendar this year. And on Friday, Sept. 23, three Poolesville teenagers were seriously injured in a single-car accident just a few miles from where two teenagers died almost exactly a year earlier.

All three teens are expected to survive.

But has anything changed?

BILL BRONROTT thinks so. In January, Maryland delegates Bronrott (D-16) and Adrienne Mandel (D-19) led a bipartisan coalition in the legislature that passed five new laws affecting teen drivers, which take effect Oct. 1.

The provisions prevent new drivers under 18 from carrying non-family passengers during the first five months of the 18-month provisional license period; prevent provisional drivers under 18 from using cell phones, except to dial 911; lengthen the learner’s permit period from four months to six months; increase the required driving practice during the learner’s permit phase from 40 to 60 hours, including 10 hours at night; and cause the 18-month provisional period to restart if a driver is found not wearing a seat belt or driving during the midnight-5 a.m. curfew.

“These are five big steps forward for the state of Maryland in one of the biggest public safety hazards,” Bronrott said. “In the end we’re going to see fewer crashes and fewer kids killed, and others that share the road with them.”

The legislation won support from groups like the American Automobile Association, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, all of which have conducted research that point to the efficacy of the changes.

For example, the presence of one passenger with a teen driver almost doubles the risk of a fatal crash compared with driving alone. With two or more passengers, the fatal crash risk is five times higher than driving alone, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The cell phone restriction is needed because “we know that a teenager on the phone has the capacity of a 75-year-old. Studies have shown that,” said John Townsend, manger of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. He called the increased practice time “sorely needed.”

Overall, teenage drivers are more than twice as likely to be involved in a fatal crash than the population as a whole. Teenagers represent about 7 percent of the driving population but are responsible for more than 14 percent of deadly crashes.

“We’ve seen that teen drivers, the youngest drivers, share a greater propensity for being killed,” Townsend said. “We have just steadfastly and steadily handed over the keys to the cars when they turn 16 with tragic and fatal consequences, and it came back with a vengeance.”

Towsend said the new laws represent a well-researched “common sense approach” but criticized the legislature for waiting so long to respond to the No. 1 killer of young people.

“It took death to do what lawmakers were not willing to do of their own volition,” he said.

Bronrott, a longtime advocate of traffic and pedestrian safety measures, did not dispute that.

“This [teen driving fatalities] happens every year,” he said. “It’s just that we saw many of these fatal crashes occurring in a relatively short period of time so it was a huge wake-up call.”

All learner’s permit and provisional license holders will be subject to the new laws, meaning that current provisional drivers will have scaled-back privileges for the remainder of their 18 months.

And although outreach efforts regarding the changes have been meager — consisting mainly of a new page of the Motor Vehicle Administration Web site — students say they’re well aware of the changes. Their reactions are mixed

“Everybody’s aware of them. I can’t say everybody’s happy about them,” said Krista Vetrano, a senior at Thomas Wootton High School. “I think they’re going to be effective laws. … They’re logical laws, but no one wants these laws imposed on them because they are logical.”

The passenger restriction has drawn the most fire from teenagers. Students said that carrying friends is not only a part of their social lives, but also of their school lives. For example, with high gas prices, they’ve been encouraged to carpool to sports practices, some students said.

“You can’t be nice, and you can’t give people a ride. It’s atrocious,” said Avianne Washington, a Richard Montgomery senior. “The cell phone law, that makes sense, because you can get into an accident that way. That should be a law for all people.”

Bronrott said he has received only positive feedback, albeit mostly from parents.

Many of those parents had already imposed restrictions on their children similar to the ones that will soon become law.

“My mom posted the list of what I can’t do [in the car]. It’s in orange,” Washington said.

Washington has an older sister who left for college last month without any driving incidents during her high-school years. “Hopefully I can follow in her footsteps,” Washington said. “My parents say, ‘Don’t get into a car accident; don’t drive our insurance rates up.’”

The official driving age in Maryland is 18. Teenagers may begin driving at a younger age only with signed parental consent, which can be withdrawn by the parent at any time until the teenager turns 18.

Parent-imposed restrictions remain important in light of the difficulty of enforcing some of the new laws. Police have already increased their attention to teenage drivers in the last year and have vowed to step up those efforts as the new laws take effect. But it remains unclear how they will, for example, identify non-family teens riding with other teens without making a traffic stop for another violation.

Bronrott said that the Motor Vehicle Administration and police will start reaching out to high schools, driving schools, and community groups to get the word out about the new laws.

“It’s going to be a major education effort. It has to be. It can’t just be enforcement,” said Townsend. “That [education effort] is what I haven’t seen anybody put on the table yet.”