Adults entangled by law aimed at young drivers License applicants face new restrictions, cost of driving school

October 16, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

A new state law aimed at improving teen-age drivers is also going to snare tens of thousands of adult drivers -- costing them money and time.

Beginning July 1, those seeking their first driver's licenses -- regardless of age -- will have to go to driving school and log another 40 hours of supervised practice before they can get a "provisional" license.

That's a big, potentially costly change for adults, who now face minimal requirements before being turned loose on the highways. Driving schools charge about $200 a head.

"Very few were aware that this bill was going to affect older drivers," said Eugene D'Onofrio, who runs drug-and-alcohol courses for new adult drivers in Baltimore. "They're going to flip."

While about 50,000 Marylanders ages 16 to 18 get learner's permits every year, the state Motor Vehicle Administration also sees 40,000 to 80,000 prospective drivers ranging in age from 19 to 85 years old.

Some waited to get their licenses because they relied on a spouse or public transportation, some because they could not ++ afford a vehicle until now.

Under current law, those older than 18 need only complete a three-hour drug-and-alcohol class and wait two weeks after getting a learner's permit before taking the driver's test.

The state's new graduated-licensing law, which won almost unanimous approval from the General Assembly this year, will require all prospective drivers -- not just teens -- to go to school for 30 hours of classroom studies and six hours behind the wheel with an instructor.

"That sounds expensive and time-consuming," said Manisha Ogale, 33, of Columbia as she waited in line at MVA headquarters in Glen Burnie yesterday to take her driving test.

She said she had been to two driving classes and logged about 4 1/2 hours behind the wheel with an instructor.

"Thirty hours is too many," said her husband, Jayant, who has been helping her.

Once novices get their learner's permits, the new law requires that they wait at least four months before taking the driving test. During that time, they must record 40 hours on the road with an experienced driver at least 21 years old.

Then, even after they pass the driving test, adults who have never driven will get only a "provisional" license. While not barred from driving between midnight and 5 a.m., as new teen drivers are, adults face stiff sanctions -- including suspension or revocation of their driving privilege -- if convicted of two or more traffic offenses in the next 18 months.

Those who have a valid license from another state or country -- even if it has lapsed -- will not automatically be required to take driver's education. But they could be issued a provisional license if they have been driving for less than 18 months.

The legislators who introduced the law insist they meant to crack down on rookie drivers of all ages.

"It was not a stealth provision at all," said Del. Adrienne A. Mandel, a Montgomery County Democrat. "We heard testimony from many people that the novice driver, no matter what age, is more crash-prone than the experienced driver."

Most lawmakers' speeches at the time, though, focused on the need to save teen-age drivers from themselves, because studies show they are far more likely than their elders to be involved in an accident.

At least one legislative leader, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, said he did not realize the law also affected new adult drivers: "I was under the impression the bill was aimed at drivers of a younger age."

Sixteen-year-olds are 10 times more likely to be in a traffic accident than 35-year-old drivers and to crash nearly three times more often than even 18-year-olds, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry group.

Maryland is one of 24 states to place restrictions on teen-age drivers, requiring them to wait longer to get their licenses and limiting their night driving. But only one other state, New Jersey, has placed new requirements on rookie adult drivers, according to Allan Williams, senior vice president of the institute.

Some research indicates that rookie adult drivers will be safer if required to get more experience behind the wheel. In Ontario, Canada, which imposed graduated licensing on all drivers four years ago, accident rates declined for all age groups, though most markedly for drivers ages 20 to 24.

But Ontario does not require driver's education, and experts acknowledge no evidence exists that driving schools reduce accidents or highway deaths. "That's surprising to many people, but that's the conclusion of many studies," Williams said.

D'Onofrio has begun a one-man crusade to alert the public to the looming licensing requirements. He said the law could put him out of business, because he teaches only the drug-and-alcohol class and not driving.

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