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Pa. lawmakers divided over amended teen-driving bill

This month, two grieving mothers delivered impassioned speeches in Harrisburg, urging the state Senate to adopt new safety restrictions for teen drivers.

This month, two grieving mothers delivered impassioned speeches in Harrisburg, urging the state Senate to adopt new safety restrictions for teen drivers.

They wanted tougher laws covering cell phones, seat belts, and teenage passengers.

Marlene Case and Karen Cantamaglia, who both lost teenage sons last year, added anguish and poignancy to the support for House Bill 67, which is backed by safety advocates, members of law enforcement, the medical community, and insurance companies. Forty-four states have similar legislation.

But when the Senate voted the bill out of committee last week, 44-3, amendments had altered it so much that its sponsor, Rep. Joseph F. Markosek (D., Allegheny), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he no longer supported it.

That left lawmakers, some of whom were on the same side previously, divided over whether the bill, now back in the House, can - or should - be saved.

As passed by the House, the bill would have limited teen drivers to one nonfamily passenger under 18 and would have made the use of cell phones or failure to buckle up a primary offense, meaning police could stop and cite them for such violations. Under current state law, unbelted drivers can be cited only if pulled over for another reason.

The Senate amendments made cell-phone use a secondary offense and added a provision that after six months of driving, teens who haven't caused an accident could have up to three nonfamily passengers under 18.

New Jersey allows teen drivers only one nonfamily passenger under 21 and bans cell-phone use. In May, it became the first state to require drivers under 21 without full-privilege licenses to display a decal on their cars identifying them as new drivers. Failure to buckle up is a primary offense for all drivers in New Jersey.

Motor-vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 20, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. A Johns Hopkins University study found that the crash risk increases exponentially with each young passenger added when a 16-year-old is driving: The chance of an accident is 39 percent greater with one passenger than with none. With three or more passengers, it's 182 percent greater.

Flaura Winston, a pediatrician who founded and directs the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said statistics showed that limiting passengers saves lives. Though she supported Markosek's bill, she said she would have preferred a ban on all teen passengers for teenage drivers.

Pennsylvania State Rep. Katharine M. Watson (R., Bucks) called the Senate version of the bill the equivalent of "a quarter of the loaf."

If Sens. John H. Eichelberger (R., Blair) or Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon) had gotten their way, though, Watson would not even have had crumbs. Both voted against the amended version.

Eichelberger, a father who owns an insurance business, said he appreciated safety concerns. But he said, for example, that he had seen more danger from people who inadvertently pour hot drinks on themselves or drop a burning cigarette in their laps.

"How far does government go to protect people?" he asked. "Will we be stopping cars at our borders to make sure people don't have food or cigarettes?"

In an e-mail, Marie Tribioli, a spokeswoman for Folmer, said the senator believed House Bill 67 gave a perception of increasing safety but did little to improve it.

"Many of the requirements of HB 67 could be addressed through stricter enforcement of existing reckless-driving laws and through more personal responsibility," the e-mail said. "While everyone would like to guarantee safety, it is difficult to reach this goal through legislation."

Sen. John C. Rafferty (R., Montgomery) said he voted for passage. "I was disappointed with what happened and spoke out against the amendments," he said.

He said he had been communicating with Markosek in hopes of reaching a resolution.

"There's always hope," Rafferty said.

Watson, who has been working for more than four years to legislate teen-driving restrictions, wasn't so sure.

She said she feared the bill would die if the House voted to send it back to the Senate with changes. She said she had had difficult discussions with colleagues and residents, including Cantamaglia, who lives in Barto.

Cantamaglia's 16-year-old son, Michael, was one of six passengers in a Honda SUV when its novice driver crashed in East Coventry Township on Nov. 23. Another passenger, Andrew Case, 17, of Pottstown, was also killed. The accident was one of three in Philadelphia's Pennsylvania suburbs in the fall that claimed six young lives within six weeks.

Watson said she would urge her colleagues to vote for the amended bill - "with the understanding that I'm coming back and we will amend this" after it becomes law.

Markosek said he would not vote in favor. He said he was committed to working on an alternative but was "not sure at this time what that may be."

West Chester Police Chief Scott L. Bohn, president of the Chester County Chiefs of Police Association, asked: "How many tragedies is too many? How long do we continue to ignore the data that has prompted 80 percent of the other states to make changes that save lives?"