DOVER — Several bills aimed at teenage motorists stalled before the General Assembly recessed last summer, but supporters are continuing their drive to see the measures become law.
The proposals surfaced in the wake of numerous fatal accidents involving teenage drivers in a very short span.
Between November 2004 and June 2005, 14 people died on Delaware roads in crashes involving teen drivers, including five victims in a six-day span in February.
Seven bills targeting teens were introduced last year, with only one — House Bill 63 — clearing both chambers and being signed into law.
HB 63 prohibits drivers with a learner’s or driver’s education learners’ permit from using a cell phone while driving. The bill does allow the drivers to use their phone if their cars are stopped and off the road.
The other bills range in scope from preventing new drivers from using radar detectors to raising the minimum driving age by 14 months, to 17 years of age.
“I don’t know if you can pick one bill (as the most important one),” said House Majority Leader Rep. Wayne A. Smith, R-Wilmington, who is sponsoring or co-sponsoring five of the remaining six bills.
“The sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts. If we enact all parts, I’m convinced it will make the roads safer.”
Although the rash of teen driving fatalities dissipated nearly a year ago, Rep. Smith said the tragedies still are fresh in legislators’ minds.
“No doubt in politics, timing is a great ally, but when you’re talking about deaths, needless death, of young people, you take the opportunity to take actions that will have a long resonance with legislators and the public,” Rep. Smith said.
With five of the bills awaiting action in the House, Rep. Smith said there probably won’t be much motion in January but they will come to the floor this spring.
One of Rep. Smith’s bills, HB 112, would raise the minimum driving age to 17. He said 23 other states already have the same minimum age.
House Bill 144 would prevent drivers with a learners’ or driver’s education permit from using radar detectors.
But one bill Rep. Smith is sponsoring, House Bill 111, could meet some resistance.
The bill would create a searchable database that would allow individuals to check the driving records of drivers under the age of 26.
“Some people think it’s pushing it too far,” he said.
Other bills the General Assembly is considering include:
l House Bill 127 — Sponsored by Rep. Deborah D. Hudson, R-Wilmington, the bill would lower the driving violation point threshold needed to suspend the licenses of drivers under he age of 22;
l House Bill 256 — Sponsored by Rep. John F. VanSant, D-Wilmington, this measure would increase the minimum age for a learner’s permit from 15 years and 10 months to 16 years, make the permit program 18 months long, reduce the number of passengers from two to one and require the driver to post a sticker or marker on the car;
l Senate Bill 117 — This bill, sponsored by Sen. David P. Sokola, D-Newark, would restrict the number of passengers allowed in a vehicle driven by someone with a permit; it would extend the permit period if the driver’s permit is suspended.
The state Office of Highway Safety has thrown its support behind SB 117, said agency spokeswoman Andrea Summers.
Since 1999, the state has imposed stricter guidelines through the graduated driver’s license program, which weans drivers between ages 16-18 into full driving responsibility.
New drivers between 15 years, 10 months old and 18 years old must be supervised by a parent, guardian or licensed driver for the first six months. Other restrictions apply for the following six months.
The Office of Highway Safety launched a statewide pilot program last fall that requires parents to attend an orientation session concerning the graduated license, said Mrs. Summers, who heads the program.
The Graduated Driver Licensing Parent Orientation Program is being used at three high schools — Dickinson High near Wilmington, Lake Forest High near Felton and Seaford High.
The hour-long presentation is broken into several segments, Mrs. Summers said, teaching the history of the graduated license, showing teen crash statistics, reviewing fatal crashes and discussing insurance repercussions.
Mrs. Summers said county emergency medical service technicians also talk about the recovery needed from crash injuries, such as therapy, doctors’ appointments and physical restrictions and limitations.
“The program was developed in response to the fatal accidents that were starting to climb,” she said. “It lets parents know they have a lot of responsibility.”
The presentation at Lake Forest was an emotional night that resonated with many parents in attendance.
In February, three former or current Lake Forest High students were killed in a two-vehicle crash.
The driver of one of the vehicles, Jason Larimore, now 19, was a former Lake Forest student and the boyfriend of one of the victims. He is awaiting trial Jan. 17 in connection with the three deaths.
“It was very somber,” Mrs. Summers said of the presentation. “Parents, because they had known the kids, were very sad.
“The parents at that school are very aware of how important safe driving is.”
Mrs. Summers said the pilot program will continue in the spring, but she will invite driver’s education teachers and school resource officers from other schools to attend so they can bring the program to their schools.
A light goes on
At the busy intersection of U.S. 13 and Dyke Branch and Fork Branch roads, vehicles whiz by at speeds of 60-plus mph, hardly noticing a small wooden cross that sits on the southbound side of the highway.
In November 2004, Matthieu “Todd” Sammons died when a car he was riding in was struck by a van while crossing U.S. 13 at Dyke Branch Road one mile north of Dover.
His death rocked the Dover High community and touched off the rash of teen driving-related fatalities.
His mother, Melany Sammons, petitioned the state Department of Transportation to do something with the intersection.
After initially putting up larger stop signs and installing rumble strips on Dyke Branch and Fork Branch roads, DelDOT recently installed a traffic light at the intersection to regulate the flow.
The light has been working for more than a month, but fresh flowers still adorn Todd’s cross, keeping his memory alive.
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