ANNAPOLIS – A contingent of grey-clad General Assembly pages joined the throng of onlookers at a House hearing on a topic that is one of this session’s hot-button issues — teen driving privileges.
The young pages, still wearing their official jackets, watched — and two even opposed some measures — as the Environmental Matters Committee heard testimony on five bills Wednesday that are part of a raft of proposed driving legislation this session.
But wide-ranging changes to current laws governing teen drivers seem assured — pages and other teens may have to learn to live with them.
A co-sponsor of three of the House bills heard by the committee, Delegate William Bronrott, D-Montgomery, said the legislation is ready to be passed.
“There is support in a very bipartisan, regionally diverse way,” he said later in an interview.
Support for some measures isn’t confined to the General Assembly. According to a 2005 AAA poll, 80 percent of respondents favor passenger restrictions for the newly licensed teenage driver.
Two bills were presented in the House on behalf of Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who has weighed in on the issue after 17 highly-publicized teen deaths in Maryland last year.
Ehrlich’s legislation would increase the time spent behind the wheel before getting a license from four to six months, and if a teen is caught violating curfew or seat-belt regulations, then the 18-month provisional period begins again.
The governor’s other bill targets drunken and drugged driving, preventing teens who are convicted of impaired driving from obtaining a license until age 21. It and several other bills will be heard by the House Judiciary Committee on March 2.
While Bronrott’s co-sponsor, Delegate Adrienne Mandel, D-Montgomery, noted that legislating is an incremental process, she said the time is right to “close the loophole with teen passenger restriction.”
Testimony in the House and Senate this past week heavily favored the bills.
In the House hearing, 19 people — legislators, transportation experts, concerned parents and even teenagers — spoke in favor of the new restrictions.
But an 18-year-old page who testified before the committee said this legislation won’t help.
“Personally, I think it has good intentions,” said Weston Bruner, of Towson, in an interview later. “However, when you break it down, it puts more restrictions without much of a means to enforcement.”
But it was voices and crash statistics from experts like Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan that might be the most influential.
“We have to send a message to young drivers that we mean business,” Flanagan said.
The next stop for the House bills is a subcommittee hearing where they are expected to speed through.
“I am going to try to move these bills within the next two weeks,” said Committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore.
Last year, the teen passenger restriction act didn’t make it out of the committee.
“I am cautiously optimistic,” Bronrott said about the chances for all of the bills this year.
“Of any bill I’ve worked on — this is my seventh year — this is the most bipartisan support I have seen,” he said. “The majority of the House and the committee is co-sponsoring each of these three bills and that is encouraging.”
McIntosh agreed there is a consensus for change. Thirty-five bills have been submitted this session that affect driver’s licensing.
“I believe provisional drivers — new drivers — should be paying attention to driving and not talking on cell phones,” she said.
“This is one area where everyone is in agreement,” she said. “Teens should be able to carry their cell phones in their car and keep them there for emergencies, but teen drivers should not be encouraged to talk on the phone while driving.”
The Senate heard similar measures in Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing. Those bills are bound for the floor, said Vice Chairman Leo Green, D-Howard.
A bill to limit mobile phone use in vehicles sponsored by Sen. Jennie Forehand, D-Montgomery, was tailored in scope to only include teenagers.
A bill by Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, was passed by the Senate last year but failed to make it through the House.
The bill would prohibit anyone under age 18 from having additional passengers under age 18 in the vehicle (with exceptions for family members) for the first six months. A similar bill by Sen. Sandra Schrader, R-Howard, which lowered the period to three months, was also heard.
No matter what approach the Legislature chooses to more stringently regulate teen drivers, Bronrott said he is optimistic that regulation will happen.
“We have reached critical mass due to a combination of factors that have brought a broad spotlight to these issues,” Bronrott said. “I don’t think anybody can rightly turn away from this issue, period.”
McIntosh said, “Do I think teens want further restrictions on their drivers’ license? No, I don’t think teens generally favor that.”
“I was a school teacher and I always used to say the rules of my classroom weren’t made up for the good kids. They were made up for the bad kids, they were for the ones who misbehave,” McIntosh said. “It is the same way with laws.”