ANNAPOLIS – Kathryn Orosz remembers the January day four years ago when her 17-year-old son died, along with his girlfriend and stepsister, behind the wheel of a yellow Ford Mustang in Calvert County.
Michael Vito was playing “leapfrog” with another car when he lost control of his Ford and hit an oncoming U-Haul. The three students perished instantly, the U-Haul driver died less than one month later.
“Our teens are not adults,” Orosz told the State Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Tuesday. “We cannot expect them to always make responsible decisions behind the wheel.”
The hearing marked the second time in as many sessions that Orosz, of Crofton, has spoken in favor of a bill sponsored by Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, that would discourage such behavior. But recent history says it may not be her last.
Dyson has advocated passenger restrictions on young drivers since 1996. And for eight years, his efforts have failed in the same committee.
Now, Dyson says, statistics favor his position.
“Hey, the evidence keeps piling up and piling up, and that evidence is teenage lives,” he said after the hearing.
The bill is simple. For six months after teenage drivers receive their licenses they would not be allowed to transport anyone under 18, except relatives.
“(At) 16 years old, you’re 20 times more likely than an adult to die in an automobile accident, and when you’re 17, you’re six times more likely,” said W. Minor Carter, a lobbyist for the American Academy of Pediatrics, which supports the measure.
Witnesses at the hearing said that side conversations, loud music, showboating and excitement all contribute to statistics that show teenagers are more likely to be involved in accidents than older drivers. Maryland State Police statistics show that for the first half of 2002, there were 39 fatal accidents and 4,009 accidents with injuries involving drivers under 19.
The proposed law would be a secondary offense, meaning if police saw a group of teens together they could not pull their car over unless they saw a violation of some other statute.
Proponents include the state Motor Vehicle Administration, AAA and the Maryland State Police.
“Our young people are killing not only themselves, but some of us,” Dyson said. “We have an opportunity to really save some children’s lives.”
Not everyone sees it his way, for various reasons.
Some opponents said they think that responsible teenage drivers would be unfairly burdened, while others say parents, not legislators, should set driving rules.
“I’ve always been opposed to these types of bills,” said Sen. Alex Mooney, R-Frederick. “Driving is a privilege and there are reasons to restrict it, but this seems to be a blanket restriction.”
Student advocates also lambasted the measure. Soham Dave, president of the Maryland Association of Student Councils, said thousands of students rely on carpools to participate in sports and extracurricular activities.
“This bill is unfair, biased and built with sawdust instead of wood,” said Dave, 17, a senior at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena. “It does not take a law. It takes a parent who cares, a parent who will not put their child behind the wheel of a 300-horsepower car.”
No date was set for the committee vote as of Wednesday afternoon.
Last year’s Senate committee defeated the bill 7-4. But recent legislative turnover has brought fresh faces, some of whom appeared more receptive than their predecessors.
Still, one returning senator – who voted against the measure in 2002 – cast criticism again this week.
“As much as we’d like to make our society risk-free, we’re never going to be able to do it,” said Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel. “I think our resources are better spent on public awareness (programs).”
For Orosz, the effort is similar to others that encourage certain behavior. That’s why she doesn’t understand lawmakers who oppose Dyson yet support other legislation.
“They can not ignore any more the statistics and documentation that has been available for years,” she said. “And I can personally say that I feel I am saving lives.”