ANNAPOLIS – The Senate Wednesday approved a measure banning teens from using cell phones while driving and a similar bill passed the House last week — moves that make it more likely the prohibition will hit the governor’s desk later this session.
The House has approved a number of bills to significantly curtail teen driving privileges, while the Senate Wednesday began to catch up, in a year when the entire General Assembly seems bent on trying to protect teens from themselves.
Senators debated the bill’s provision to suspend a minor’s license if caught driving while talking on a cell phone — a punishment in keeping with the penalty for drunken driving.
“This bill goes way too far in the penalty phase,” said Sen. Edward J. Pipkin, R-Queen Anne’s, who tried to lessen the penalty.
“This is a nuclear option,” he said.
“To compare using a cell phone to drunk driving is way out of line,” said Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset. “This is not a good bill.”
The Senate passed the bill 27-17.
The House, in comparison, debated little over its version of the cell phone bill, spending more time arguing a measure to restrict the number of passengers allowed in a teen’s vehicle. A passenger restriction bill has yet to reach the Senate floor.
The chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which presented the cell phone bill, defended the measure.
“This bill will save kids lives,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery.
“If you think this is tough, just wait till you see the administration’s bills,” he said.
Wednesday afternoon his committee approved those Ehrlich administration bills.
The bill that had the most debate, and the tightest vote, in Judicial Proceedings was one to restart the 18-month provisional period if a teenager has a moving violation, is caught out during the curfew hours between midnight and 5 a.m. or if anyone in the car fails to wear a seatbelt.
Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., D-Prince George’s, who voted for the bill, said it is unfair to elevate the measure to a primary offense and restart the clock.
“I support the measure begrudgingly,” he said.
The committee amended all of the administration’s bills.
— SB 206, which restarts the 18-month probationary license period for curfew violations, driving without seatbelts or moving violation convictions.
— SB 207, which revokes the license of a teenager convicted of alcohol- or drug-related driving offenses for one year on a first offense and two on a second.
— SB 209, which changes the learner’s permit age to 15 years and 9 months, the provisional license age to 16 years and two months and the licensing age to 17 years and 9 months.
While Frosh said the punishments meted out in the administration’s bills are draconian, he said changes to teen driving privileges are necessary.
“We need to make them accept responsibility,” Frosh said later. But he said he’s pleased the committee mitigated the penalties, particularly shortening the suspension of driving privileges for alcohol and drug use from the administration’s three years or until age 21, whichever is longer.
“I wouldn’t have supported it in the original form,” Frosh said.
“We put it in better shape,” he said, “it’s still potentially problematic.”
Also on Wednesday, Judicial Proceedings heard testimony on a bill to penalize people providing alcohol to minors with revocation or suspension of their driver’s license.
Although current law imposes fines for allowing minors to have or consume alcohol, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, D-Montgomery, said by revoking a license you are making a statement.
“In our society, we’ve come to rely on our cars,” Garagiola said. “Two months without a driver’s license is going to have a big impact.”