ANNAPOLIS Gael Whetstone knows it for a fact – seatbelts do work, and teen-agers aren’t always using them.
The registered nurse at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore told legislators Wednesday that she has witnessed untold deaths of teen-age automobile drivers and passengers who were not buckled in properly when their cars crashed.
“There are days when the animal-like cries of mothers and fathers grieving for their children is almost more than I can bear,” she said. “As a society and a community, we must be held accountable when it comes to the protection of our children. We must set the standards for responsible behavior.”
Whetstone fought back tears as she testified to members of the House Commerce and Government Matters committee in favor of a bill requiring all passengers in an automobile driven by someone under age 18 be securely belted in.
The bill responds to several fatal crashes over the past eight months in Carroll, Calvert and Montgomery Counties involving teen drivers. In each case, the crash killed unbuckled teen-age passengers.
Liberty High School students Diana Hutsler and Alison Carroll admitted that they didn’t think to wear seatbelts until this past Valentine’s Day.
One of their closest friends died in a Carroll County car accident that day. She was not wearing a seatbelt.
“This accident, for all of us at Liberty High, has been what one may call a rude awakening,” Hutsler said. “However, still few students think to use a seatbelt. It’s so ironic that it took an accident like this to make Alison and I wear our seatbelts.”
Teen-age drivers account for less than 10 percent of all drivers but more than 15 percent of all fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“Teen drivers are the least experienced, but they are the highest risk takers and least likely to wear a seatbelt,” said Delegate William Bronrott, D-Montgomery, one of two co-sponsors of the bill.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a car with a teen- age driver, but it is not always the most pleasant experience,” said Natosha Washington, an 18-year-old Potomac High School senior, at the committee hearing. “Usually the music is blasting, there is a lot of horseplay going on, and the driver is paying more attention to his friends than to the road.”
“Most teen-agers think that it is not cool to wear seatbelts,” she said. “If this bill is passed, the law would require it.” Washington was one of three teenagers who spoke in favor of the bill. No one spoke in opposition.
Now, anyone over age 15 may ride in the back seat of a vehicle without wearing a seatbelt. This allows teen-agers to pile more than three passengers in the back seat, said Delegate Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery, the bill’s other co- sponsor.
“It’s very easy to shove seven, eight or nine people in the car, turn on the radio and hit the road,” she said. “This bill would effectively limit the number of passengers in a car.”
This legislation would change the law to force all automobile passengers to buckle up when the driver has a learner’s permit or a provisional driver’s license. Maryland drivers can not apply for unrestricted licenses until they are 17 years and seven months old, according to the Department of Transportation. Therefore, the new law would place the passenger seatbelt restriction on all minors.
If drivers practice this safety habit from the beginning, they will continue it later, said Sherri Cook, with the Motor Vehicle Administration. The MVA supports the bill.
Penalties for not buckling up in the back seat could include attendance of a driver improvement program on a first offense and a 30-day driver’s license suspension for a second offense. After that, violators could lose their licenses for up to 180 days.
“If (this bill) is not passed, teens will continue to ride in vehicles without their seat belts, and they will continue to drive around in vehicles with more passengers than the vehicle can safely seat,” Washington said.