- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2005

It has been decades since Maryland Delegate William Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat, first stood on a public podium to attempt to save drivers’ lives. He hasn’t put the brakes on pushing those lifesaving measures since.

Back in 1979, Mr. Bronrott was press secretary for U.S. Rep. Michael D. Barnes, Maryland Democrat, and helped organize the national press conference that introduced the now-famous Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Yesterday, Mr. Bronrott said that watershed moment was “a wake-up call when I discovered the hundreds of people who die and the hundreds of thousands who are injured” each year by drunken drivers, some of them teens.

The case that propelled MADD to prominence involved 5-month-old Laura Lamb, who became the youngest quadriplegic in the country after a drunken driver collided head-on with the car her mother was driving on a routine run to a grocery store in Montgomery County one Saturday afternoon. The little girl lived only until she was 6.

In the 1980s, Mr. Bronrott worked behind the scenes on several drinking-and-driving initiatives, one called Project Graduation; another, the law that raised the national drinking age to 21.

He said he has been “pushing for teen passenger bills since 1998,” when a horrific summer accident on East-West Highway in Chevy Chase killed three persons. A newly licensed driver was held responsible for the deaths of his passengers and a father of three when he crossed into oncoming traffic. Mr. Bronrott, along with his Montgomery County colleague, Delegate Adrienne A. Mandel, also introduced legislation forcing graduated licensing of teen drivers.

Today, Mr. Bronrott, as a Democrat serving on the House Environmental Matters Committee, which has oversight of transportation codes, still is working hard to get the underage-driving laws strengthened after several failed attempts.

This year, however, he is more optimistic about imposing more stringent laws to “close the gaps” in laws relating to underage driving. He hopes that the rising number of teenage driving deaths in Maryland “has grabbed the attention” of the General Assembly and will serve as a “wake-up call” to enact stricter legislation that could save the lives of teen drivers.

“We have some good laws, but we could have some great laws,” he said. Indeed.

Mr. Bronrott said he has seen unprecedented bipartisan and statewide support and “the door is now open” for the passage of the hard-fought measures this year.

Too bad it didn’t come sooner. As he said, “Dying on a highway is a nonpartisan experience.” Sadly, at least 17 young drivers were killed in the first six months of 2003, Mr. Bronrott noted. That same year, 106 teens accounted for 649 traffic fatalities, or 16 percent of the fatalities, though they make up only 7 percent of the state’s population.

“This rash of fatalities has been the wake-up call we need and may keep everybody’s eye focused until we finally get the problem under control,” he said.

Obviously, the teen driving deaths captured the attention of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican who recently appointed a task force on broad-based teen driving issues and introduced his own stringent proposals aimed at newly licensed drivers.

“We have a huge opportunity with the governor jumping on board,” said Mr. Bronrott. He was appointed to the teen driving task force, which was to hold its first meeting last night. On Feb. 9, the House Environmental Matters Committee also will hold a hearing on the teen driving bills.

“Anyone who will spend a day with me at the [University of Maryland] Shock Trauma Center, a rehabilitation center or a nursing home, will see teens with brain injuries, bodies broken, families torn apart and the untold stories of suffering caused by accidents,” he said.

Now, it seems we don’t even have to wait until graduation or prom season for the mounting evidence.

The “four I’s of inexperience, impairment, inattention and the false sense of invincibility, as well as immaturity and impatience, some would argue, all combine to make a lethal combination” and the state “must put in safeguards and research-based recommendations,” Mr. Bronrott said.

Most of the underage driving legislation proposed during this legislative session is supported by the National Transportation Safety Board and numerous safety organizations and trauma-prevention experts, he noted.

Mrs. Mandel’s bill forbids the transport of nonfamily members for newly licensed drivers during the 18-month provisional period. Mr. Bronrott’s bills would prohibit the use of cell phones for teens with learner’s or provisional permits, except to call 911. More importantly, one increases the required number of hours that parents must supervise their children’s driving from 40 to 60 (10 of which must be at nighttime).

Mr. Ehrlich’s proposals would first extend the learner’s permit period from four months to six months. If the underage driver is ticketed for a seat belt or curfew violation, his or her license will be suspended for 90 days. If convicted of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the driver’s license would be revoked for three years or until the driver turns 21, whichever comes last.

“This is pretty strong medicine,” Mr. Bronrott said.

Despite how vulnerable today’s teens are to violent crime, studies indicate that highway crashes are the No. 1 cause of death and disabling injury to teens and young adults.

Not if Mr. Bronrott stays on the worthy path to save lives.

He’s right. These critical pieces of legislation should be passed by the 2005 General Assembly and “would bring real progress in the effort to keep our children and our families whole.”

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