State makes driving costly

Policies: Maryland contributes unnecessarily to the trouble low-income individuals have getting a license and insuring a car.

November 30, 2003|By Robert C. Embry Jr. | Robert C. Embry Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In the business of living and working, owning a car is no longer a luxury. It's a necessity, especially in Maryland.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in Maryland, 86 percent of workers 16 years and older drive to work (74 percent drive alone) while only 7 percent rely on public transportation. Even in a city like Baltimore, with a public transit system, access to a car is necessary.

According to a recent study conducted by the Job Opportunities Task Force, 70 percent of the region's low-skill jobs are in the suburbs, while low-skill workers are concentrated in Baltimore City. Many of the low-skill jobs are not easily accessible by public transit and many of the better-paying jobs for low-income workers require a driver's license.

States can set policies that either ease or increase the costs of buying and insuring a car and obtaining a driver's license. Unfortunately, Maryland has chosen to set some of the most restrictive policies in the country.

Recent studies conducted for the Abell Foundation have found that Maryland is the only state in the nation to require adults to attend driver education school at a cost of $250 to $300 and to document 40 hours of accompanied driving before obtaining a driver's license.

This is a substantial roadblock for low-income people attempting to get a license and a windfall for driver education schools. The Maryland Motor Vehicles Administration has no have evidence that this requirement for adults results in fewer traffic accidents.

According to the MVA, the current requirement for a certified driver education course in Maryland is 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours of driving. However, this requirement was not established as a result of research or policy analysis. The traditional "30+6" was actually the legacy of Amos Neyhart, who taught one of the nation's first public school driver education classes at State College High School in Pennsylvania in 1933 and had 36 hours to fill in a semester.

In 1999, Maryland instituted a new Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) requirement. GDL exists in some form in 37 states. Although implementation varies by state, GDL programs generally have three stages: A minimum supervised learner's period (learner's permit); provisional intermediate license (once the driving test is passed) that limits unsupervised driving in high-risk situations; a full-privilege driver's license available after completion of the first two stages.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a number of national safety organizations endorse GDL, and it has been shown to reduce teen-age crash rates, including in Maryland.

But only two states - Maryland and New Jersey - apply GDL to new drivers regardless of age. Maryland requires all new drivers, not just teen-agers, to hold a provisional license for 18 months before obtaining a full driver's license.

And if you get a ticket during that 18-month period, matters get worse, from restarting the waiting period to losing a license altogether.

Insurance is another major obstacle for low-income Marylanders who need to drive a car. According to figures provided by the Maryland Insurance Administration, insurance rates for Baltimore City are almost double the average rates for Maryland. Although reforming the insurance industry might be too much to ask, Maryland should consider establishing a low-cost automobile insurance pilot program for Baltimore.

In 1999, California authorized Low Cost Automobile Insurance pilot programs for residents of Los Angeles and San Francisco. The program has strict requirements on income and driving record. The automobile to be insured must be valued at less than $12,000 at the time of purchase. The rates in Los Angeles County are about $437 for liability, bodily injury and medical payments coverage. Such a pilot program could easily be tried by Maryland, through the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund.

Cumbersome and expensive systems for licensing and high costs of automobile insurance are prohibiting many people in lower-income working families from reaching their jobs and managing their lives outside of work.

Maryland has a responsibility to recognize the adverse social consequences of an unfair system and to work toward resolving the problem.

Robert C. Embry Jr. is president of the Abell Foundation.

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