Teens tempting fate

Nov. 16, 2005, midnight | By Natasha Prados | 14 years, 7 months ago

Blazers break newly established driving laws

Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

Suddenly, the world contorted. Everything seemed eerier, scarier. The glowing streetlights appeared menacing. The October air felt unusually chilly.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Senior Pham Bui's heart pounded fiercely in his chest as he spotted the police officer in his rearview mirror. His breath abruptly shortened. His palms got sweaty.

This wasn't supposed to happen. He had just been driving a friend home.

Bui thought that since he was over 18, he could legally drive after midnight. He was right. But Bui was driving without a seatbelt and with a passenger who was a minor and not an immediate family member.

Bui's immediate reaction was to lie. He told the police officer that the passenger was his cousin and that they lived at the same address, but the policeman didn't buy Bui's story. Once the officer checked their IDs, he fined Bui $75 and mandated that he attend driving improvement classes.

Bui's penalty was partially a result of a recently passed teen driving law. Bui says the incident served only to augment his cynical view of the new legislation. "It's just police officers trying to fill their quotas. They should only go after people under the influence of drugs or alcohol," Bui says.

The new driving laws, which went into effect Oct. 1, lengthen the time drivers must hold learners permits, toughen the requirements for obtaining a provisional license and raise the ages required to obtain both a provisional license and full license. Additionally, all drivers under 18 may not use cell phones while driving, except for emergency calls, and may not drive with any minors unless the passenger is either a member of their family or over age 21 for the first five months they have their provisional license.

According to DriveHomeSafe.com, 14 percent of deaths due to motor vehicle accidents are teen drivers. Of teen drivers killed in motor vehicle accidents, 45 percent had a youth passenger in the car with them. By reducing the number of distractions in the car with teens, legislators hope to reduce the number of car crashes and the resulting fatalities.

Although this law is relatively new, teen drivers are already breaking it for the sake of convenience. In an informal poll of 100 blazers conducted during 5A and 5B lunches on Oct. 24, 64 percent of students said they have broken or expect to break the new law, 30 percent said they have not and will not break the law and 6 percent said they were unsure as to whether they would or not.

While Bui encountered a police officer well versed in the law and enforcing it, not all Montgomery County police officers know the details of the new statute.

Police presence

When Montgomery County Patrol Officer C. Martin is asked how frequently she has seen teenagers disobeying the new driving laws, her face is a blank.

"You can tell this is a ticket we don't write a lot," jokes her colleague, Patrol Officer S. Roth. Neither Martin nor Roth were fully aware of the legal extent of the new law.

Martin says she heard in the news that the laws were proposed, but was unaware that legislators had actually passed the laws. Upon learning of the content of the laws, she thought they would increase safety by reducing distractions for young drivers. "Teenagers need to concentrate [in the car]," she said.

In Martin's defense, Roth notes that the new law is embedded in a 300 page legislative update with revisions to the current traffic article (the law book for traffic offenses).

The Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) informed provisional licensees about the new regulations by sending them letters with the guidelines enclosed, whereas police officers only received the 300 page legislative update and whatever facts they learned from the news.

Roth knew about the cell phone provision of the law, but was unaware that teen drivers cannot drive non-family members who are minors without an accompanying 21 year old. "It's hard to know everything in the traffic article. We try to be aware when things come out, but you learn by experience," says Roth.

Getting by

Like some Montgomery County police officers, Blazers are learning to deal with the law one step at a time. Many students are subscribing to a case-by-case approach when it comes to breaking the law. Most do not make one conscious choice to break the law; rather they are willing to violate it under specific circumstances.

Tina, a junior, says she has violated the law multiple times and driven up to five minors at once, adding that in all likelihood, she will violate the law again. Tina explains that she does not "plan to [break the law] but I probably will again. It just happens."

Tina feels the law is "stupid." According to Tina, the main reason for teens to break the law is for convenience and the sake of efficiency. "If everyone's going to the same place, why would you make them ride the bus and meet you there?" she asks.

For junior Shanikia Warren, the matter is more serious than simple logistics. She feels the law is a valiant attempt to save lives. "There [are] too many young kids out there dying over something stupid. They end up getting killed because they're so excited to be driving," says Warren.

Unlike Warren, most student drivers do not believe disobeying the law is a life or death matter. Most drivers are simply afraid of the consequences associated with getting caught.

In addition, student drivers believe that the laws cannot or will not be adequately enforced. "I don't think I'm gonna get caught," says senior Ken Ettinger.

Ettinger's confidence is rooted in the fact that the new law can be enforced only as a secondary offense. Roth affirms that teens cannot get pulled over for using a cell phone or driving friends unless they are also violating the law in some other way, adding that it is difficult to identify teen drivers. "If I'm behind you I don't know how old you are, it's only after I stop you that I can look into it," says Roth.

Cell phone fanatics

Even though he's not worried about getting caught, Ettinger says he only occasionally uses his cell phone in the car to call his parents for directions and to answer calls from friends.

Like Ettinger, senior Emily May tries to keep her in-car cell phone use to a minimum. May says she calls people only when she is at stoplights.

May does not feel her phone usage is dangerous. "I don't think it's a safety concern because I don't do it while I'm actually driving," she says. May also notes that she will only call someone if she needs to talk to them pretty urgently.

While Blazers like May and Ettinger attempt to reduce their cell phone use while driving, other drivers just cannot resist using their phones. Senior Ana Ponce says she uses her phone almost every time she's in the car. Ponce is constantly dialing friends to find out about their plans for the rest of the day, check movie times, get directions or just chat. Although Ponce asserts that she "still tries to be careful" when using her phone, she says she hasn't really thought about safety concerns or the consequences of getting caught.

Parental permission

For junior Annie Denenberg, getting caught is not an issue — at least when it comes to her parents. Far from disciplining Denenberg, her father asked her to disobey the law.

Denenberg's brother wanted to go the mall one drizzly day with a friend. The boys could have just walked over to the Metro, but, in typical teenage fashion, they were reluctant to venture out into the rain. "My dad told me to drive them and I did," Denenberg says.

Denenberg's father, Ray, opposes the law for several reasons. He feels that the law leads to "clogging up traffic, parking spaces and the atmosphere [and] consuming more gas." He also worries that by having more cars on the road, "the statistical risk of accident is certainly increased much more than the theoretical risk posed by the presence of passengers."

Although Denenberg disagrees with the law, that doesn't mean he thinks teenagers should not be responsible while driving. In general, he feels most teenagers are dependable enough to handle driving. Denenberg says most high school kids "take very seriously the privilege of driving."

Still, Denenberg thinks teens should not be left to their own devices. He says parents should "exercise proper judgment" in ensuring their children drive safely.

Although her father would allow her to break the law again, Denenberg is uncertain as to whether she will.

Bui, on the other hand, is certain that he will stick to the law from now on — he refuses to risk another ticket and the accompanying fine.

Natasha Prados. More »

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