- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

Teenagers driving in Maryland starting today face new and tougher laws, which authorities hope will reduce the number of deadly crashes involving young motorists.

Drivers younger than 18 are now prohibited from talking on cell phones while driving. And they no longer can have passengers under 18 who are not family members during the first five months they have a license.

“We have seen far too many times that teen-driver inexperience, inattention, immaturity and a false sense of invincibility have all too often been a lethal combination on our roadways,” said Delegate William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery County Democrat who proposed the cell-phone bill.

The changes are in large part a response to a series of crashes last fall in the region, including three in a two-day span in Montgomery County that killed five persons and seriously injured four others.

“The rash of teen-driving deaths in our community a year ago was a huge wake-up call,” said Mr. Bronrott, who thinks young drivers need help in averting traffic accidents, the leading cause of death for people 16 to 19, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“We’re hoping [the new laws] save the lives of our youngest drivers,” said John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “We realized that our young people were being killed before our very eyes. We’re not troglodytes or killjoys. We just want to save lives.”

Virginia lawmakers failed to pass a similar cell-phone ban in January. No motorist, regardless of age, in the District is permitted to talk on a hand-held cell phone. The District and Virginia already have laws for drivers younger than 18 on hours they can drive and the number of passengers they can have.

In addition to the cell phone and passenger restrictions in Maryland, teen drivers must now have a learner’s permit for six months, instead of four months. They also must have 60 hours of supervised driving, increased from 40, before getting an 18-month provisional license. Ten of the supervised hours must be at night.

Under that license, licenses are suspended for 90 days if a driver is caught not wearing a seat belt or violating a midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew. Those caught breaking the laws will have to start their provisional period from the beginning.

Mr. Bronrott’s proposal was included in legislation Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, introduced to the General Assembly earlier this year. The bills attempted to impose stiffer penalties on young drivers in Maryland for violating the rules of their provisional licenses and for drinking and driving.

“It’s going to be a real pain not being able to give rides to my friends and to not answer my cell phone when it rings, [but] these small inconveniences are worth it because it will help me and other teens to be safer drivers,” said Avi Edelman, 16, a junior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, where officials announced the changes yesterday.

Dennis Thomas, a classmate, does not have his license yet but took a similar view.

“I think it’s a good thing,” he said.

“For those who drive recklessly, it’s better to think twice. It’s better to live another day than die in a car accident.”

Phillip F. Gainous, the school’s principal, said the laws are about “tough love” and that some students may not recognize or appreciate the significance until later.

“I want to thank the state, though, because it demonstrates that the state cares about our kids,” he said.

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