Safer teen drivers
June 16, 2016
Can Maryland’s teen drivers be saved from themselves?
Last week, three Montgomery County teens, all juniors at Clarksburg High School, died in a single-vehicle crash in Damascus. The driver, a 17-year-old who had only recently obtained his provisional driver’s license, had veered into a tree in his vintage Ford F-250 pickup at a high rate of speed. Alcohol wasn’t involved: Police blamed both speed and driver inexperience.
Statistically, summer is the most dangerous time of year for young drivers who, as studies have shown, are more likely to cause a vehicle to crash than any other group. Often, it’s a product of inexperience and the youthful tendency to take risks — and that’s why states like Maryland impose restrictions on beginning drivers.
But are those restrictions enough? The Damascus crash and the deaths of Jacob Dennis, 17; Patrick Andrew Shifflett, 18; and Cary Mauri’ce Greene, 17, should spur Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland General Assembly to take a second look at policies that have been little changed since Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor. More than 4,200 people are killed each year in crashes involving drivers age 15-20, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, making it the leading cause of death for that age group. As it happens, young men and pickup drivers are regarded as being at particularly high risk of a fatal crash.
Highway safety advocates say Maryland driver’s license restrictions fall short of the national standard in several areas. Current state law allows a teen to acquire a learner’s permit three months prior to his or her 16th birthday, for instance, when ideally it should not be allowed until age 16, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
The same group is pressing for reforms in Maryland’s graduated driver’s license so that young drivers face nighttime restrictions beginning at 10 p.m., instead of the current midnight, and greater restrictions on teen passengers (no more than one non-family member). They also want police to be allowed to pull over a vehicle when such a violation is observed — a provision known as “primary” enforcement — as opposed to issuing a citation only if a vehicle is pulled over for other reasons such as speeding or another moving violation.
Further, safety advocates would like to make Maryland’s seat belt requirement enforced on a primary basis on all passengers and all ages. That proposal was offered during the last General Assembly session and passed the House of Delegates but died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee before it could receive an up or down vote.
Combined, these restrictions would cover a familiar behavior — teens driving in groups late at night with a potentially distracted driver. That may well have been the circumstances that led to last week’s horrific crash in Montgomery County, and it is a scenario likely to be duplicated elsewhere during the summer, at least if history is any guide. (Thirty-eight people died in young driver crashes in Maryland in 2014, the most recent year for which an NHTSA analysis is available.) Such incidents are often alcohol-involved as well, but Maryland’s restrictions on youth drunk driving are considered adequate.
One reason they are is the General Assembly this year approved “Noah’s Law,” which requires convicted drunk drivers to use ignition interlock devices that prevent them from starting or continuing to drive their vehicles while intoxicated. The measure was named after Noah Leotta, the Montgomery County police officer who was killed last December in Rockville by a repeat drunk driver.
It’s unfortunate that a particularly horrible multiple-fatality is required to get lawmakers focused on traffic safety, but a measure of public outrage and a call for accountability seems to be what’s necessary. Nor does it hurt when that crash takes place in the District of Columbia suburbs, which account for a high percentage of traffic fatalities. (Prince George’s and Montgomery counties reported more than one-quarter, or 674, of the 2,403 Maryland traffic deaths over the 5-year period ending in 2014.)
Additional restrictions on teen drivers won’t eliminate the problem, of course, any more than traffic laws have eliminated speeding or red-light running or other risky behavior. But the incremental improvements would surely help — and without much sacrifice on the part of teens or their parents, particularly compared to what’s at stake.