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Officials respond to teen traffic fatalities

January 31, 2005|by WANDA T. WILLIAMS

wandaw@herald-mail.com

The number of fatal traffic accidents involving young drivers has Maryland lawmakers racing to pass tougher laws to curb the spiraling rate of teen-related fatalities on area roads.

In 2003, more than 100 young Marylanders were killed in traffic accidents, Gov. Robert Ehrlich said in statement released earlier this month.

"Of the 651 people killed on Maryland highways in 2003, 106 were 21 years old or younger," said Jack Cahalan, a spokesman with the Maryland Department of Transportation.

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In 2002, 661 people died on Maryland highways and 135 were 21 years old or younger, according to figures provided by the transportation department.

The National Highway Safety Administration lists "driving distractions" as being one of the top contributing factors leading to accidents involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers, Cahalan said.

State Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, is co-sponsoring a Senate bill that would prohibit minors who have been issued driving permits from transporting passengers under the age of 18.

"In Montgomery County alone, there have been at least a half-dozen kids killed on the roads," Munson said. "If that's the case in Montgomery County, other areas can't be far behind."

The governor's office also announced the creation of a group called the Governor's Work Group on Young Drivers. It's expected to include about a dozen people and will focus on increasing the role that parents play in teen driver safety, a spokesman said.

The group's members have yet to be appointed.

In addition to the governor's work group, a press release says that Ehrlich plans to introduce legislation that would:

· Extend the learner's permit period from four to six months.

· Create a 90-day license suspension for violations committed during the permit licensing period.

· Revoke the driver's licenses of drivers under the age of 21 convicted of drunken or drugged driving violations for three years or until the driver turns 21, whichever is longer.

Under Maryland's Rookie Driver program, teenage drivers may obtain driver's licenses under a graduated licensing system that allows them to gradually move up through three levels of licensing.

Unlike school systems in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, driver education is not required in Maryland public schools. Although a few Maryland school systems have opted to offer driver education, it's not available in Washington County public schools.

Munson said Maryland cannot afford to fund a statewide driver education program.

Washington County Board of Education President Paul Bailey said county schools stopped offering driver education courses in the mid-1980s. Despite state budget concerns, local parents probably would welcome the program's return, he said.

"I'd like to see the state revisit it," Bailey said. "I feel certain that parents would rather have their kids take driver education at school rather than pay for it."

Mark Hash, driver education director at Jefferson High School in Shenandoah Junction, W.Va., said he believes it will take classroom instruction, parental involvement and stronger driving laws to reduce the number of teenage traffic deaths.

He applauded West Virginia's graduated driver's licensing system, which issues a driving permit to 15-year-olds with occupancy restrictions. As with the systems in Pennsylvania and Maryland, West Virginia's system enforces penalties that can delay access to obtaining full driving privileges for teenage drivers who break the law.

"If they get one violation, they have to go one year incident-free before they can move up to the 16-year-old driver's license," Hash said.

About 360 students enroll in driver education classes at Jefferson High School each year, he said.

"We always have a waiting list," Hash said. "As soon as a kid drops the class, the spot is filled before the end of the day."

The Chambersburg (Pa.) Area School District enrolls about 300 students a year in driver education classes, said Tom Palguta, driver education director.

The state's Young Driver Law, passed in 1999, has brought about tougher measures in how driver's licenses are issued to teen drivers.

"A high number of highway fatalities prompted sweeping changes in the laws that are now in place, and we have seen a reduction in teen fatalities," said Anthony Haubert, a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman.

Under the law, Pennsylvania offers a graduated licensing policy that requires teenagers to have their learner's permits for six months before taking road-skills tests. Teenagers also must complete 50 hours of supervised driving under the instruction of a licensed driver 21 years of age or older, Haubert said.

Tri-State-area educators said there is no one solution to teenage traffic fatalities, but say it will take parents, educators and lawmakers to find solutions and save lives.

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