Privatization foes fear for biker safety program

February 26, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Efforts to shift state government programs into private hands are threatening to run over a highly successful motorcycle safety program.

Unless the General Assembly acts soon, the state's system of motorcycle safety instruction will be abolished March 15. In its place, the Motor Vehicle Administration will contract five driving schools to offer classes to half as many students at up to three times the former cost of tuition.

Safety advocates claim that could make the roads significantly more dangerous for bikers and other drivers, and wouldn't save the taxpayers money since the current safety program has always been financially self-sustaining.

"You already have goofs out there without helmets, in shorts and wearing flip-flops driving down the center line," said film and video producer Debbie Alcaraz, 30, of Towson, an avid motorcyclist. "You abolish the motorcycle safety program and you get a lot more people like that on the road."

More than 18,600 people have taken the MVA's 20-hour intensive motorcycle driver training program since it was started in 1984. While the classes are mandatory for drivers under age 18, two-thirds of the students are older drivers who attend by choice.

State officials said they believe that rider education has reduced the number and severity of motorcycle accidents. About 42 percent of motorcyclists involved in collisions are unlicensed and untrained, said Andrew Krajewski, MVA's motorcycle safety coordinator.

Students currently pay a $50 tuition, and the program also benefits from a $5 surcharge on registrations and from a portion of the cost of a learner's permit. The program actually took in $12,000 more than it cost last year.

At the urging of Del. Timothy Maloney, D-Prince George's, the legislature last year decided that the MVA should privatize the classes.

He argued that the state couldn't afford to train cyclists at a time when it was cutting out the state's $3 million subsidy for automobile driver education. He also objected to having "dedicated" funds of any kind as bad policy and contended that the safety program wasn't really self-sustaining since it didn't recover licensing costs.

When the state received bids in December, only five schools responded. Proposed tuitions ranged from $110 to $160 -- double to triple the former cost.

None of the classes would be in Baltimore or surrounding counties, with the exception of one at Harford Community College. The schools would only be able to handle up to 2,000 students -- compared with 4,200 trained last year by the state.

"It's a boondoggle," said Del. James R. Harkins, R-Harford County. "It won't work. It's not cost-effective."

Mr. Harkins, a deputy sheriff and part-time motorcycle safety instructor, has offered a compromise.

His proposal, House Bill 1144, would restore state training for motorcycle drivers. But it would become mandatory as of Oct. 1, 1994, for all new license applicants, including bikers who have moved to Maryland from other states. The bill would eliminate the dedicated fund for motorcycle safety, allowing the current $500,000 surplus to be tapped for other transportation programs.

Both changes have enraged motorcycle advocacy groups. They argue that if the course becomes mandatory, it will serve twice as many students as in the past and will quickly become overburdened.

"The classes will fill up, the waiting list will be extensive and it's more likely there will be unlicensed motorcyclists on the road," said Jay Block of Pikesville, a lawyer and coordinator for Coalition Advocating Rider Education, a coalition of motorcycle clubs.

A hearing on the bill is scheduled before the House Appropriations Committee at 2 p.m. Monday.


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