New decal law for students shades of Catch-22 Regulation requires out-of-staters to pay $27 fee to register vehicles

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

September 28, 1992

You can always count on government to invent new rules for the road.

Maybe they're well-intentioned. Perhaps even worthy of debate. But sometimes the difficulty of enforcing the regulation makes it seem a bit silly.

The Intrepid One presents a case in point.

It concerns a little-noticed law enacted last spring directed at students who attend Maryland schools but drive cars registered in other states.

Beginning Thursday, these students from out of state will have to pay $27 each year for a decal that must be pasted to the windshield.

But even though the program goes into effect in three days, it's unlikely anyone will be able to obey it: The Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) has printed neither the applications nor the stickers.

First, a little background: State law requires newcomers to register their vehicles and apply for a Maryland driver's license within 30 days of moving to this state. For many, it's a significant expense.

The new, two-year registration costs $70 for the average motorist, including a $16 surcharge for emergency medical services. Titling costs 5 percent of a car's value -- $500 on a car worth $10,000.

Insurance costs can soar. Someone moving to Baltimore from a rural part of the country, for instance, might see insurance payments triple after changing the registration address.

Students and the military have long been exempted from registration. Both groups are not here permanently after all, and neither has deep pockets.

There's also an exemption granted people who have come here for short-term employment. They have to get a permit, too. But that's a relatively small group -- 600 people last year.

Cracking down on registration scofflaws has never been easy. If a police officer observes an out-of-state license plate, how does he know it belongs to visitor?

It can be even trickier in a community like College Park with thousands of University of Maryland students. Not only would a police officer have to prove the owner driving with out-of-state tags has a Maryland residence, he would have to be sure the person wasn't a student.

Enter Prince George's County Delegates Pauline H. Menes, Timothy F. Maloney and James C. Rosapepe, who sponsored the legislation to require the student stickers. Ideally, the stickers will save a lot of time and trouble, at least for police.

"We were worried about people circumventing the law," Ms. Menes says.

In the past, the state's registration requirement was frequently enforced with a warning -- the MVA's investigative staff has issued 3,700 of them so far this year.

The forms are usually left on a car's windshield. They must be returned with proof of Maryland registration or an explanation of why the owner isn't registered in this state. Being a student was explanation enough, and no costs or fees were involved.

The state issues a citation if the explanation doesn't check out, or if the form is not returned. Failing to comply is a misdemeanor punishable with a fine of up to $255, but only 355 citations have been issued by the MVA this year.

For our student readers, here's a quiz.

1. Who gets nailed by the new law? Students who drive cars registered outside Maryland must obtain a permit and sticker from the MVA, neither of which is yet available.

2. How will students find out about the new law? Through their schools, none of which has even been told about the program.

3. Will students actually buy and display the stickers even though they could face the whopping $255 fine? Our campus sources say, probably no. The chances they'll be caught are so slim, they just won't be motivated.

Here's the rub. The program will likely raise money for the state at a time when the coffers are low. There are about 35,000 out-of-state residents attending college in Maryland. Assuming one-third of them own cars, that's a potential $315,000.

As much as the Intrepid Commuter likes to see his legislators sticking up for us state residents, we have to question the wisdom of creating a whole new permit system to address a relatively small group of people who aren't even the real problem.

While we're on the subject of laws and such, it's time to ask the big question.

You know the one. It's the question we think of every time we drive the Baltimore Beltway, Interstate 95 or the Jones Falls Expressway.

Just what is the speed limit in this state, anyway? Yes, yes, we know the signs say 55 mph.

But anyone who has ever driven the highways around here knows that's not true.

We ask our readers to write or call with their opinions.

Should the speed limit be changed? Enforced differently?

We'll tabulate your responses for a future column.

KEEP IN TOUCH

Write to the Intrepid Commuter, c/o The Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore 21278. Please include your name and telephone number so we can reach you if we have any questions.

Or call -- using your Touch-Tone phone -- Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at 783-1800, and enter Ext. 4305. Call 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County.

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