ANNAPOLIS – The House approved a slate of bills Thursday designed to curb teen driving problems, including restricting the type of passengers allowed in a teens’ car for five months and banning phoning while driving until age 18.
Pressure to limit teenagers’ driving privileges was prompted by the more than 17 highly-publicized teen driving deaths in Maryland last year.
The bills won overwhelming or unanimous approval. On Tuesday, the bills were given preliminary approval after considerable debate over the passenger restriction bill.
Many delegates said they were concerned about the bill’s effect on rural communities, which tend to rely on teenage drivers.
During the debate, Delegate Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore, tried unsuccessfully to broaden the language of the bill to allow students to drive to and from athletic events, volunteer and school activities.
Delegate Herbert McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, urged the House to support Zirkin’s amendment and to focus on laws that don’t punish good children. “It’s not about good-versus-bad kids,” said Delegate William Bronrott, D-Montgomery, sponsor of several of the bills. “This amendment in effect is a poison pill that will gut the intent of this legislation.”
Another amendment to allow parents to sign a waiver allowing other children to drive in the car was also defeated.
“It’s not just about the students in the car,” said Delegate Susan W. Krebs, R-Carroll, “it’s the people coming down the road.”
According to the Maryland State Highway Administration’s Traffic Safety and Analysis Division, of the 651 traffic-related fatalities in 2003, 146 of those involved drivers aged 16 to 20.
Environmental Matters Committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, defended the passenger restriction bill approved by her committee saying it was the best answer to the problem and is in keeping with legislation passed in 26 other states.
“The No. 1 reason (minors get in accidents) is inattention,” McIntosh said. “It is not alcohol, it is not drugs.”
Before Thursday’s vote, Delegate Ruth Kirk, D-Baltimore, spoke about her 17-year-old son, Vernon Simons, who died in 1968 after drag-racing with another youth. Had there not been other teens in the car, she said, he would not have done it.
“Please support this bill,” she said.
“The governor is very pleased and hopes the bills will continue in a bipartisan effort to ensure the safety of Maryland’s young drivers and the safety of all drivers,” said Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who pushed for two of the measures.
The Senate already approved a passenger restriction bill, although its restriction period runs for six months. The House bill runs for five.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is scheduled to review the House bills next.
Bronrott said he was pleased the measures received such strong support.
“We are around the bend and heading into the main stretch here,” Bronrott said. “We’re not going to take it for granted.”
The bills passing the House Thursday were:
— HB 242, which extends the learners’ period from four to six months.
— HB 244, which restarts the 18-month probationary license period for curfew violations, driving without seatbelts or moving violation convictions.
— HB 393, which prohibits teens from carrying unrelated passengers for five months after obtaining a provisional license.
— HB 394, which bans cell phone use while driving until age 18.
— HB 395, which increases the number of supervised driving hours required before getting a license from 40 to 60, with 10 of those occurring at night.