Bad IDea

March 04, 2007

Maryland drivers now only have to show up in person once every 10 years to renew their licenses.

That's reason enough to root for repeal of a foolish federal law that orders all 245 million drivers in America to flock to centralized locations in each state armed with a pile of documents including: the Social Security card acquired for that first job as a teenager; an official birth certificate - no copies, please; a passport or other citizenship papers; and proof of residence other than a driver's license.

But inconvenience is the least of the concerns now fueling a drive in Congress to dump this attempt to push motor vehicle authorities into the front ranks of immigration control.

Cost, privacy and the potential safety risk posed by this so-called security measure all make a powerful case that Real ID should be replaced with a collaborative effort by the states to write their own standards.

The Bush administration bowed slightly to these concerns last week, relaxing the May 2008 deadline by which the states were supposed to begin implementing the program. Further, states would be able to use homeland security grants for the licensing system.

But the administration also revealed the program would cost $14.6 billion - even more than the states had feared - and up to $300 million in Maryland alone. The grants would fall far short, and are already spoken for.

Costs for drivers would rise substantially as well, to as much as $150 for Marylanders, who now pay $30 once every five years.

New regulations governing the licensing program don't address privacy problems posed by the collection of so much personal information on drivers in state databases accessible nationwide. These databanks, intended to prevent terrorists and illegal immigrants from getting licenses, would be a rich target for identity thieves.

It makes far more sense to return the issue to the states, which can develop more practical license safeguards - without citizenship screening, for which they are ill-equipped.

Of more than 600,000 Maryland drivers who renewed their licenses last year, nearly one in four did so by mail, taking advantage of an option first offered in 2004 to those who forgo an updated picture and supply a doctor's sign-off on their vision.

State Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. says he fears that the cost and imposition of Real ID will be so great that if it's not repealed, he will push for a two-tier system. Federally approved licenses are required to board airplanes, but for those who just want to drive he would offer the $30 state model.

Everybody else might want to look for their Social Security cards, just in case.

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