- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

POLITICAL THEATER COLUMN:

For all the years his son was alive, Montgomery County Police Capt. Tom Didone developed educational enforcement programs and spoke to groups about the dangers of teenage driving.

“On the night of October 20, my life’s work came screaming into reality,” he said, standing Thursday on a sidewalk by the U.S. Capitol, just inches from a mangled blue Volvo station wagon, its front end smashed into a V the shape of a tree.

“I never thought this would happen to me, and then I got one of those phone calls.” His 15-year-old son, Ryan, was dead. A group of boys had piled into a car to drive three miles to a fast-food restaurant, the driver a 17-year-old boy who had obtained his provisional driver’s license just two weeks before.

“Life can be cruel and unfair, but going to Burger King should not be a death sentence,” the officer said.

The blue Volvo - the very one in which Ryan was killed - served as a powerful backdrop yesterday for a moving pitch by members of Congress, parents, pediatricians, police and safety advocates to enact a national standard for driver’s licenses.

Three members of the House have sponsored new legislation, dubbed STANDUP (for the Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act). On the Senate side, Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut is expected to soon put forward similar legislation.

While some 40 states have graduated driver’s license programs - meaning there is a learner’s permit stage and an intermediate stage before an unrestricted driver’s license is granted - 10 states do not. And the standards vary widely from state to state.

One after another, advocates took to the podium, the blue Volvo behind them, and ticked off alarming statistics.

• More than 5,000 teenagers die each year in car crashes, making it the No. 1 killer of people aged 15-20.

• While teen drivers make up 7 percent of the driving population, they are involved in 14 percent of fatal crashes.

• Sixteen-year-olds are three times more likely to die in a car crash than the average of all other drivers.

Advocates of the new federal legislation say enacting a standard graduated driver’s license could dramatically reduce teen driving fatalities. And the federal government wields a mighty stick: Under the bill, if states fail to comply within three years, they will lose transportation funding until they do.

Sherry Chapman, a vocal supporter, also lost her son, also named Ryan, in a car crash.

“I cannot begin to express to you the immensity of the loss, the weight of the grief,” she said. “Looking at the patchwork quilt of laws for teen driving throughout the nation compels me to recommend that it is time for federal legislation to urge and accelerate states to pass strong, uniform laws.”

Several supporters, aware that having the federal government step in on the issue might draw criticism from states’ rights proponents, noted that national laws have been passed changing the legal drinking age to 21 and setting a uniform blood alcohol concentration at .08 percent. This law would be no different, they said.

Still, Rep. Timothy H. Bishop, New York Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the legislation will likely face a fight.

“I think it’s fair to assume that there will be some pushback both from the states and from our colleagues here on Capitol Hill,” he said, adding that there could well be debate about “the appropriate role for the federal government.”

But supporters, including Capt. Didone, say the new bill cannot be enacted quickly enough.

“It is too late for my son Ryan, but it’s not too late for the many thousands of other children who deserve to live long and healthy lives. Please, parents, talk to your children about this issue, give them a hug, tell them that you love them and to come home safely,” he said.

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