The open road has been closed to Truxton Sykes for eight months now, because he can't afford to pay $1,100 a year for auto insurance.
Sykes, a 47-year-old northeast Baltimore man, has for years spent his spare time -- and gas money -- driving around town to volunteer in programs to help the homeless and drug abusers.
But then he suffered kidney problems and was unable to work last year. He no longer could afford the premium for his automobile insurance and he was forced to sell his blue 1976 Ford.
"It's ridiculous," Sykes said. "There's no way in the world you can afford an automobile on the insurance they charge around here while you're disabled."
"Losing my car not only affects me, it affects a lot of the people I was helping," he said. "And I can't get around on the bus late at night because it ain't safe."
Sykes, vice president of the City Wide Insurance Coalition, was one of several Baltimoreans at a City Council hearing last night to complain about the high city insurance rates.
For two hours the council heard representatives of CWIC, a group formed 2 1/2 years ago to create a non-profit insurance agency for city drivers, explain why the city needs an alternative to private insurers.
Several city drivers also showed up to complain about high premiums.
A non-profit insurance company would bring lower rates to city drivers and allow them to spend money on other needs and reinvest in the community, said Steven Bunker, a CWIC spokesman.
The average insurance premium for city drivers is $1,200 to $1,300 a year, Bunker said. He said residents of surrounding counties pay up to $900 less because they're considered less vulnerable to the accidents that may occur in big-city traffic.
The CWIC says its model insurance company would cost about $10 million to organize. The group hopes to gain the city's support in soliciting the money from private businesses, churches and individuals, said coalition president Robert Kaufman.
Kaufman said that all loans made to set up the company would be repaid within 10 years.
After CWIC organizes its 13-member board, which is to include community leaders and business owners, he hopes the group will be able to get enough support to start the company within two years. But if the group fails to raise the money, it may try to bring the matter to public vote, Kaufman said.
Leslie Ransom Sr., vice president of R&B Unlimited, a consultant studying the feasibility of the idea, said about 80 percent of the 175,000 city drivers would qualify for the insurance company's service, although many probably would choose to retain their current carriers.
Ranson added that the company's policies would be available to all drivers, but would be most attractive to city residents who could save up to 20 percent on premiums.
The feasibility study will be completed by early July, he said. The city paid for half of the study's $30,000 cost; the rest was raised by CWIC.
Councilman Lawrence A. Bell 3rd, D-4th, said his West Baltimore community has been very supportive of the CWIC proposal.
"We've exhausted every other possibility for getting fairness on this issue," Bell said.
Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Specter said she wants to lower auto insurance costs but warned CWIC to determine what sources it would tap for funding and find out whether it is legal to solicit public funds for what might be a private company.
Some drivers said greed and discrimination are responsible for high city insurance premiums. They said drivers in Baltimore, which is predominantly black, pay disproportionately high premiums.
"It's economic bias, a case of the rich benefiting from the poor," Truxton said. "First they charge lower rates in the county and then higher rates in the city to offset their problems."
"You can't depend on them to be fair because they're totally for profit," he said. "If racism wasn't profitable, we wouldn't have it in America."
Former U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell, who attended the hearing to show his support for the proposal, said the high city premiums make some people break the law to lower their cost of driving. "You create a class of lawbreakers," Mitchell said. "Increased pTC automobile insurance forces people to lie and say they live in Baltimore County" so they can be eligible for lower premiums.