Driving barrier

December 29, 2003

MARYLAND DESERVES to have safe roads, but it also needs to put people in jobs.

What happens when one of the country's toughest driver's education mandates collides with Baltimore's high unemployment rate?

That's the question raised by a recent report from the Abell Foundation that suggests the city's disadvantaged are virtually barred from finding jobs in the suburbs because it's too difficult, and costly, to get a driver's license.

Since 1999, Maryland has had a graduated driver's license, or GDL. It's a three-stage program that limits first-time drivers to a learner's period, and then to a provisional (or rookie driver) license that strictly limits unsupervised driving.

To get a full driver's license, applicants must complete a certified driver's education course (30 hours in class and six hours of driving) and submit a signed "skills log" that documents at least 40 hours of supervised driving.

Those are a lot of hurdles to jump, but entirely appropriate for 16- and 17-year-olds who, as any parent will testify, are prone to acting irresponsibly behind the wheel. Studies have shown that teen motorists are involved in a disproportionate share of accidents.

But here's the jam: Maryland requires all first-time drivers to jump through these same hoops, not just the youngest. That means a high school graduate looking for a first job must come up with $300 or so for a private driving school. (Public schools dropped free driver training back when disco was king.) Add that cost to the outrageous price of auto insurance for city drivers and it's a wonder that young or immigrant job-seekers ever find employment beyond the reaches of Baltimore's humble transit lines.

Officials don't know how many adults have lost out on jobs because of the GDL. But the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration doesn't know whether forcing adults into the GDL has reduced accidents or saved lives, either. It has for younger drivers, according to a 2002 MVA study, but researchers didn't look at older first-time drivers because they aren't as big an issue.

Nobody wants to put bad drivers on the road. But the MVA shouldn't put up roadblocks to employment so lightly, especially for people trying to pull themselves out of poverty - certainly not until the agency can demonstrate that the policy is making the roads safer.

Are fewer 20-year-old new drivers getting in accidents? The MVA ought to find out. Even if they are, driver's education classes must be made more available to poor people. Right now, state law requires only that driving schools offer payment programs. The MVA needs to advance some creative solutions such as offering driver training on the Internet or public-private partnerships to underwrite its cost.

Protecting public safety is a noble enterprise, but so is reducing unemployment. The two goals shouldn't be at odds.

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