ANNAPOLIS – Young drivers would be prohibited from carrying teen passengers for their first six months behind the wheel under a bill that won a Senate committee’s approval Friday, ending seven years of frustration for one Southern Maryland lawmaker.
The lengthy battle has pit highway safety advocates against family rights supporters, who say the legislation infringes on a parent’s freedom to raise their own children.
Both sides, however, agree the bill should have little trouble winning full Senate approval now that it’s cleared a hurdle in place since 1996.
“Everyone realizes that young drivers are not as responsible as they should be,” said bill sponsor Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s. “And there have been many deaths that have driven this home again and again.”
Dyson’s law would bar anyone under 18, except for immediate family, from riding with a new driver. He’s made his pitch to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee every year, each time bringing more supporters to testify.
The proposal would be considered a secondary offense. If police saw a group of teens together, unless that car was violating another law, they could not pull it over.
Proponents include the state Motor Vehicle Administration, AAA and the Maryland State Police. The committee voted 6-5 in favor of the bill, sending Dyson’s proposal to the full Senate for the first time ever.
“A lot of (lawmakers) don’t want to play Big Brother,” Dyson said. “But in this case, some of them are realizing that for a small amount of time, teenagers will look at the dangerous machines they have.”
Federal and state statistics show that from January 1997 through June 30, 2002, 488 teenagers between the ages of 16 and 20 died in Maryland highway accidents.
Last year’s Senate committee defeated the bill 7-4. But recent legislative turnover has brought with fresh faces to the committee, including Baltimore County Democrat James Brochin.
Dyson said he lobbied Brochin Thursday night, hoping to win last-minute support. Brochin’s “yea” vote proved crucial to passage.
“Reason and rationale prevailed here,” Brochin said. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask a 16-year-old to get a little more experience before driving with other minors, and the documentation that Sen. Dyson presented was persuasive.”
But some opponents think that responsible teenage drivers are unfairly burdened, while others say parents, not legislators, should set driving rules.
“I’m a parent with a child involved in a lot of extracurricular activities,” said Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, who voted against the bill “It should be my decision who she transports in her vehicle, and we’re never going to be a society that’s risk-free.”