The pricey pursuit of a driver's permit

Would-be motorists and schools feel pinch at the pump

June 27, 2006|By JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV | JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV,SUN REPORTER

Gary Waddell, doesn't have a driver's license, but the 16-year-old already is feeling the pinch at the pump.

At a time when gasoline prices are fluctuating between high and higher, the driving school that Waddell attends - like others around Maryland and nationwide - is wrestling with how to set its tuition for on-the-road instruction amid a volatile fuel market.

"The prices are real high," said Waddell, a western Howard County resident who takes driving lessons from Arbutus-based Summit Driving School, where tuition increased in September from $369 to $395.

And Summit's owner, Harsey L. Shutt, said he might have to increase tuition again if fuel costs increase.

"It's costing more than $12 a student," he said of recent run-ups in the price of fuel. When I look at that, we have to start recovering somewhere."

Across the country, driving schools have found themselves in the same predicament, according to Brad Huspek, president of Driving School Association of the Americas Inc., a nonprofit organization that represents 400 of the estimated 4,000 driving schools in the United States and Canada.

There is no sign that fuel prices have dampened the need for the services provided by the driving-school industry. According to the Federal Highway Administration's most recent numbers, there were about 9.3 million licensed drivers under age 20 in the U.S. in 2004, about 160,000 of them in Maryland.

But driving-school operators are well aware that there is a limit to what they can charge, even as rising gasoline prices tempt them to pass fuel costs along to students.

While many companies increased prices last fall in anticipation of rising costs during the summer, Huspek said he knows of schools in Minnesota and Kentucky that applied fuel surcharges to tuition while classes were in session.

"One of the problems is advanced enrollment," Huspek said. "You have quoted a specific price. I think the airline industry has the same problem. Three months later, the price of gas is higher, and customers have already bought the ticket."

David A. Hockey, owner of Crofton-based Suburban Driving School LLC, said he will wait until gasoline hits $3.25 a gallon before he increases tuition. Hockey raised tuition in 2005 to $350, from $325, in anticipation of gas prices hitting $3 a gallon.

"I am going to have to increase it again," said Hockey, who added that he might have to tack on an additional $10 to driver education classes, depending on summer gas prices. "Summer months are going to be hard on everybody because of air conditioning."

But other driving schools are holding firm against price increases. Safety First Driving School Inc. in Elkridge is offering $229 specials.

"We have not increased our prices for any reason," said Ray Crivelli, president of Safety First, which normally charges $249 for a complete driver-education class. "We don't pass any insurance increases or anything to our students. It boils down to the profit margin of each school."

Crivelli conceded, however, that fuel costs remain an issue.

"My instructors call me every day they go past the stations, and the prices change," he said.

Students find themselves squeezed at the other end of the economic pipeline. Although regulations vary across the country, students in a number of states have to complete over-the-road instruction. Maryland requires that new drivers complete a 30-hour driver education class and six hours of over-the-road instruction. Other states, including Virginia, Wisconsin and Minnesota have similar over-the-road instruction requirements.

Jess Haslam, a 15-year-old sophomore at Reservoir High School in Fulton, said her father could not believe the price of the class when it was time to enroll.

"He said it was way, way expensive for something we had to take," the Laurel resident said. "But this is the closest and it's right after school."

Sheri Haslam said there are kids in her daughter's high school who are not driving and not getting their licenses because of the high price of driver education.

"It does affect a lot of families," she said.

Gas is playing a role in the types of vehicles that driving schools use for instruction.

All of the driving-school officials interviewed in Maryland said they were exploring the option of switching to hybrids or other energy-efficient vehicles.

Most states regulate the types of vehicles that can be used in driving schools. Some states use a vehicle's mileage, others the age of the vehicle.

In Maryland, vehicles used by driving schools cannot be older than six model years.

Even though the two student-driver cars that his school uses are three years old, Hockey is thinking about his next purchases.

"Most driving schools look at small, fuel-efficient cars," Hockey said. "[But] we can't get too small of a car because we have large students."

Size has come into play for 15-year-old Michael Evans, who is enrolled in Summit Driving School. His parents are looking to trade in their Jeep for a car that can accommodate their 6-foot- 7-inch-tall son. Michael said he does not want an SUV.

"I'm not trying to get a big truck that is a gas guzzler," the Fulton resident said.

Waddell said he recently bought a Toyota Camry from a friend because it was cheap, in good condition and got good gas mileage.

"Gas prices are too high," Waddell said. "There are rumors that they will be five bucks before the end of the summer."

Jess Haslam said she does not have a car waiting for her when she gets her license, but she is interested in buying a hybrid.

"I'll have to pay for the gas," she said.

Sheri Haslam said increases in gas prices have changed the way the family is approaching buying a car for her daughter.

"We had read the articles for safe cars to buy for teens," she said. "Now gas mileage is a factor."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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