MVA blocked public data on drivers Accident records, violations not covered by new privacy law

Error being corrected

Computer system has to be modified to allow compliance

January 31, 1998|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration has been illegally blocking public access to the traffic violation records of thousands of drivers.

A new state law allows drivers to request that "personal information" -- name, address, medical information, Social Security number and telephone number -- be kept private from most people. But motorists may not keep secret their driving records, specifically traffic offenses, accident history and whether their licenses are valid.

Yesterday, a Sun reporter tried to obtain the driving record of a fellow employee who had requested privacy. At MVA offices in Glen Burnie and Annapolis, clerks and a supervisor refused to provide the record, even though the law requires them to do so.

"You misunderstand the law," the supervisor said, adding that it would take a court order to release driving histories of those who have opted to keep private their personal information.

The MVA's principal counsel, Jonathan Acton, acknowledged this week that driving records -- even of those who have chosen privacy -- are to remain open under the new law.

And a top MVA official said later that agency employees have not been trained to release the driving records of motorists who have made use of the new law to maintain their privacy. She blamed computer difficulties and said the problem was being remedied.

Even some privacy advocates say it is important for records of driving violations to be available to the public so that people can learn when dangerous motorists are allowed to stay on the road.

"I don't think there's any right of privacy for someone who's a danger to society," said Robert Bulmash, president of Private Citizen Inc., a privacy rights group.

Privacy advocate Karen Morison said she sees value, in some circumstances, in keeping driving offenses open to the public.

"Driving is a privilege, not a right, and the rest of us who share that road in Maryland have a right to know" about dangerous drivers, said Morison, president of the National Association to Protect Individual Rights, a 25,000-member group based in Virginia.

. James E. Donahue, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, a newspaper group that has lobbied for opening state records, said, "If you've got kids in school and your school bus driver has three DWIs [driving while intoxicated], wouldn't you want to know that?"

'I feel terrible'

Barbara Bentley, chief of the MVA's driver services division, said yesterday that MVA employees were well trained on the privacy law, but not on how to supply driving histories of people who had requested privacy.

"I feel terrible," she said.

The MVA's computer system cannot separate the public part of a driver's data from the private, she said.

To provide the record, a clerk would have to cut apart a computer printout to separate the violations from the person's name, address and other private information, she said. "It seemed like an unprofessional way of issuing a record," she said.

Bentley also said the MVA had not received any requests for such records until the Sun's inquiry yesterday. But there is no evidence that those who have been improperly denied access to driving records would leave a record trail at the agency.

Bentley said she hoped no such requests would be made until summer, when the agency's computer system will be programmed to allow clerks to easily separate the private and public information.

She said she was preparing to instruct employees to immediately begin providing the public part of the record -- driving histories -- by cutting the private information off the computer printout.

Those requesting driving histories will have to know the motorists' names and birth dates. But if drivers have opted for privacy, their driving histories will be released without any identifying information attached.

Until September, all driver information was public. At that time, a state law took effect allowing drivers to call a toll-free telephone number to make their personal information private.

The law contains exceptions allowing access for government, courts, police, insurance companies, private detectives and lenders seeking to recover debts. The records also are open for the purpose of notifying owners of a vehicle recall.

Many request privacy

More than 400,000 of Maryland's 3.4 million drivers have requested privacy, many to stop their names from being sold to businesses marketing goods and services.

The rush of calls to close records has prompted some state legislators to seek to make such privacy automatic. Under bills before the Maryland General Assembly, motorists would have to notify the MVA if they wanted their data to be public.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, and more than 30 other senators -- 70 percent of that body -- have introduced one such bill.

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