Teenage driving safety laws still a work in progress

Nov. 11, 2005, midnight | By Kathy Jee | 14 years, 10 months ago

Although changes are a step in the right direction, they offer no more than a partial solution

Oct. 1 marked the beginning of new safety initiatives for teenage drivers in Maryland, as increased restrictions on the existing licensing laws officially went into effect. State legislators, responding to last winter's string of accidents and fatalities involving young drivers, changed the laws to increase safety and awareness among teenagers and their parents. While some of the new provisions provide reasonable solutions to the ongoing problem of teenage driving safety, it still remains an issue for young drivers because of oversights in the new laws.

The changes to the driving laws include a ban on cell phone use for all minors and a ban on carrying teenage passengers for the first five months of the provisional license period. The laws also extend the minimum waiting time required to qualify for a provisional license by two months and add 20 extra mandatory hours of practice driving with a parent or guardian.

The new laws take into consideration the unsafe distractions of friends and cell phones, which significantly increase the risk of accidents when combined with driving. The risk of a fatal crash for teen drivers with two or more teen passengers is five times as high as it is for teens driving alone, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Likewise, driving while talking on a cell phone has been found by the IIHS to quadruple the risk of getting into an accident. Young or inexperienced drivers cannot afford to be exposed to these distractions, which fuel car crashes, the number-one cause of death among teens. The bans on cell phones and teen passengers ensure that teens have their full attention on the road during their most inexperienced years of driving.

But while these changes could potentially lower the risk of car accidents, they fail to account for designated driving. Under the new law, a sober teen will be unable to drive his intoxicated friends home safely for the first five months of the provisional period. Although legally this should not be a problem, since no one in Maryland under the age of 21 can consume alcohol, the National Study Center for Trauma and Emergency Medical Systems found that, in 2001, 12 percent of intoxicated drivers involved in Maryland car crashes were 16 to 20 years old. Legislators need to acknowledge teen drunk driving and take action instead of outlawing designated driving, a viable solution to the enduring problem.

Another issue with the new laws is that increasing the minimum number of required hours of driving practice with a parent or guardian from 40 to 60 will have little effect, considering the time it takes for a teen to become an experienced driver. "Teens, in general, are not fully aware of the consequences of their actions on the road - at least initially," says Kenneth Beck, a University of Maryland professor who studies teen driving patterns. "It takes several months of driving over several thousand miles in different conditions before teens have had enough varied experience to anticipate the consequences."

Even with the increased requirement, a fabricated log of hours would still qualify as long as it is complete with parent signatures. To guarantee that teens get enough experience behind the wheel, the number of required hours of in-car driving instruction could be increased from the current six. This way, teens will be forced to learn from a qualified instructor.

The consequences and enforcement of the new laws are also not strong enough. The maximum punishment for breaking the law is a suspension of driving privileges for up to 90 days. Currently, any violation of the new laws is considered a secondary offense, meaning that the police will not enforce them unless the car has already been stopped for another violation, according to the Montgomery County Police Department. For an issue as important as driving safety, the penalties and enforcement should be much higher. By making violations a primary offense for which teens can be pulled over and by increasing the length of driving suspensions, legislators can make young drivers realize the seriousness of the new laws and the importance of driving safely.

The recent steps legislators have taken to increase driving safety have been a good effort, but the limitations of the new laws must be addressed to prevent more teen drivers from losing their lives.

Kathy Jee. Kathy Jee is a junior in the Magnet Program and is excited to be a part of the wonderful Silver Chips staff. When not in school, she enjoys playing basketball and obsessing over "American Idol." She is looking forward to another stressful year of school... More »

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