Permit deadline looming for teens

Tough new standards for driving licenses take effect Thursday

June 27, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

It's crunch time for 17-year-old Becky Bieneman.

She and thousands of other Maryland teen-agers are making a frantic dash to driving schools and Motor Vehicle Administration offices to get learner's permits before Thursday, when the state's tough new standards for teen drivers take effect. In recent days, MVA waiting lines have reached record lengths as teens scramble to avoid the new rules.

The law is unquestionably a good idea, they agree. For somebody else.

"There's a lot of young, inexperienced drivers, and it's really dangerous out there," said Bieneman, fresh from her class at a North Baltimore driving school last week. "But I know I don't want to go through it. It takes up a lot of your time. Everyone's stressing out about this."

Among the changes: Instead of waiting two weeks for a license, teens, and first-time adult drivers, must wait four months as of July 1. Instead of six practice hours behind the wheel, they must document 40 hours of practice with an adult. Anyone who obtains a permit before Thursday falls under the old rules.

Annie Carter's hectic schedule is typical. Always being on the go is among the reasons students are racing to avoid the new, more time-consuming requirements.

"I'm busy, constantly busy -- two jobs plus basketball, badminton, tennis, karate," the 16-year-old Frederick Douglass High School student said between her driving classes in Catonsville last week.

When she arrived early one recent morning to apply for her permit at the MVA office at Mondawmin Mall, she was 145th in a line mostly made up of teen-agers. She left with the permit three hours later. "It's really good what they're trying to do, but I can't wait four months," she said.

Statewide, there were more than 14,000 applications for learner's permits last month, up about 40 percent from last year.

Freedom from carpooling

Parents seem just as eager. With freedom from carpooling and chauffeuring at stake, many moms and dads are encouraging their children to beat the deadline.

"My parents want me to get the license bad. They're sick of taking me places," said Bieneman, who lives in Overlea. Arriving to pick her daughter up from class, Donna Bieneman admitted the idea of driving less was appealing. Besides, her daughter waited longer than most to apply for her permit, and she expects Becky will be a mature beginning driver, she said.

"But I plan on going out with her a lot to drive," Mrs. Bieneman said. "I want her to drive safely."

Under the new law:

* Teens must be 15 years, 9 months to apply for a learner's permit, the same as under current law, and they still must pass written and vision tests to obtain the permit. The new permit will be valid for a year, instead of 180 days. The 40 hours of required practice driving must be supervised by an adult 21 or older who has been a licensed driver for at least three years.

* The new minimum age for a provisional license is 16 years, 1 month -- a month more than under current law. As before, the license allows teens to drive alone but prohibits them from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. However, new drivers must wait 18 months before qualifying for a full, unrestricted license. That is six months longer than the current wait.

* Teen drivers face tougher sanctions. If convicted of a moving violation while holding a provisional license, the driver's 18-month waiting period begins again, and he or she must complete a driver improvement program. A second conviction means the license can be suspended for 30 days. A third conviction can mean revocation.

* All driving schools will follow a single, standardized driving curriculum that was approved by the General Assembly.

The bottom line: fledgling drivers who are a little older and better trained.

"Hopefully, we're going to see more experienced drivers who are more cautious on the road," said Richard Scher, a spokesman for the MVA.

"We hope this will cut down on accidents and deaths that result from poor judgment and lack of experience."

The accident rate for 16-year-old drivers is 10 times higher than for 35-year-olds and nearly three times higher than for 18-year-olds, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Students `in a panic'

For driving schools, fear of the new law among teens has led to unprecedented business.

"It's gone out of control since May," said Holland Browning, owner of four A E-Z Driving Schools around Baltimore. His school on Harford Road is getting up to 70 phone calls a day -- quadruple the number at the same time a year ago.

"They're in a panic," he said. "They're driving me up the wall."

Under normal circumstances, walk-in customers find room in a class immediately. Browning is so booked up that his first available opening is in August.

"Let's put it this way: I'm picking up two new cars today, and I've hired three new instructors," he said.

Across town at the Friendly Driving School in Catonsville, all classes are filled to capacity for the first time since the school opened two years ago.

"There's a huge rush," said Syed Wahid Husain, the owner. "They all want to beat this new thing." He, too, has added cars and employees.

He hears lots of grousing from students worried that if they get a ticket, they will have to repeat the 18-month wait for their license. "They don't like that," said Husain.

As for the 40 hours of practice with an adult, "they don't like that, either," he said.

"Personally, I like it," Husain said. "There's only one purpose -- to improve their driving. Even if it seems to take a lot of time, you're talking about life.

"You may not notice the difference July 1, but three months from now or six months, you'll start seeing the difference."

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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