Bill would withhold federal highway funds to ensure compliance
By LAUREN C. WILLIAMS
WASHINGTON (April 24, 2009) - With prom season and springtime joyrides on their minds, safe driving advocates Thursday tried to boost federal legislation to tighten licensing requirements.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, Montgomery County Police Capt. Thomas Didone and other teen driver safety advocates rallied at a news conference Thursday for the Safe Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act, which was introduced to the House April 2.
The STANDUP Act requires all states to institute a graduated licensing program within three years or face the loss of $25 million from highway and transportation funding. The program would prohibit solo night driving and the use of cell phones while driving until age 21. The bill also would mandate drivers be 16 years old to get a learner's permit and 18 years old for a full license.
"Immaturity, inexperience and invincibility" are the cause of teen wrecks, said Didone who stood inches in front of a mashed blue Volvo station wagon.
Didone lost his son, Ryan Didone, 15, in late October last year in the violent crash of that same blue Volvo.
Ryan, a sophomore at Damascus High School, was on his way to a Burger King in Damascus from a Christian youth group meeting with four schoolmates when the 17-year-old driver, Zachary Kimble, drove into a tree. The accident killed Ryan and injured everyone else, one critically. The driver, Ryan and two other passengers were not wearing seatbelts.
Ryan "always wore his seatbelt without being told," Didone said, but, "did not buckle up on that night."
Maryland has had a graduated licensing program since 1999, which requires learner's permit applicants be at least 15 years and nine months and must have the permit and 60 supervised practice hours before taking a road test to get a provisional license. Full licensing privileges are awarded at 17 years and nine months and young drivers must have an alcohol-free record.
Maryland lawmakers this spring approved legislation to make its graduated licensing ages conform with the federal proposal.
To protect lives, distractions, such as other passengers and phones, should be minimized, Didone said. In 2005, Maryland enacted a law that restricted cell phone use to drivers over 18, but it does not mandate hands-free devices.
It's not a local issue. The Maryland contingent was joined by Rep. Timothy Bishop, D-N.Y., and Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del.
Bishop said he expects some pushback on the legislation, citing financial arguments and the appropriate role of the federal government in enforcing regulations on state driver's licensing.
"We should all be able to agree that protecting public health is a fair role" for the federal government.
"We have to do everything we know to prepare them (to drive)," said Van Hollen, who said he spent a lot of time driving with his two teenagers.
"Parents can do their homework" to help prevent teen automobile accidents, said Didone. "If they're not ready, don't let them get the license."
"The nature of teen crashes is they don't think it will happen to them," Didone said. "They don't realize their own inexperience."
But responsibility isn't solely on young drivers, he said.
"I've heard countless stories of parents not doing their part," Didone said. "Parents need to be held accountable."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.