Bill would ease driver license rules for adults

Applicants over 18 now face same hurdles as teens

  • Victoria Wong, 23, Baltimore, wants to get a drivers license, but would have a tough time getting to the driving school to take the classes because it conflicts with her work schedule. She says other adults with jobs and who have to rely on the bus face similar obstacles.
Victoria Wong, 23, Baltimore, wants to get a drivers license,…
March 07, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

At 23, Victoria Wong thinks that someday she and her husband might like to live somewhere outside the city, where being close to a bus stop isn't a necessity.

But that day looks far off for the Charles Village resident because she doesn't yet drive and Maryland imposes some of the stiffest requirements in the country for those applying for their first driver's license once they've reached legal adulthood. The costs of taking the same driver education courses a teen-ager must pass, and the difficulty of fitting such training into a busy work schedule have ensured that she remains a regular bus rider, Wong says.

On Tuesday, a Maryland Senate committee will hear testimony on a proposal to ease licensing requirements for individuals over age 18 — a measure that has the backing of many advocates for low-income workers who find the hurdles the state put in place with teens in mind have become a barrier to advancement into the middle class.

One of the problems, the bill's supporters say, is that adult license applicants often don't have a parent or mentor available and must pay an instructor to take them for the mandatory 60 hours of driving practice at a cost of thousands of dollars.

Wong, who didn't obtain a driver's license as a teen in California because of the costs of operating a car, hopes the bill will be adopted by the General Assembly.

"I think it would help me. It would help a lot of people," she said.

The bill faces opposition, however, from a trade association for the state's driving schools. They contend that even if Maryland is an outlier among the 50 states, it did the right thing for safety when it imposed stringent training and practice requirements on all new license applicants, no matter what age.

"A new driver is a new driver," said David Resnick, treasurer of the Maryland Professional Drivers Education Association and the owner of Elite Driving School. "To drive is a privilege. It's not a right to get a driver's license."

Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the state Motor Vehicle Administration would not take a position on the bill before the Senate hearing.

The controversy behind the bill dates to 1998, when Maryland — in an effort that was largely sold as a measure to keeps teens safer — imposed tougher requirements on new drivers before they can obtain a license.

Since then, the General Assembly has further tightened the requirements for first-time license applicants, whether under or over 18. In 2005, Maryland increased the amount of time a holder of a learner's permit must wait before applying for a license from four months to six; in 2009 it increased that time to nine months in a move intended to raise the minimum age for a license to 161/2 years.

Meanwhile, the 2005 bill also required drivers on learner permits to log 60 hours of driving — an increase from the previous 40 — with a parent or a mentor.

Lawmakers have required adult drivers to jump through the same set of hoops as teens. The result, according to supporters of the bill, is that many lower-income workers have found their path to better employment blocked.

The proposed legislation seeks to ease up on adults 18 and over by reducing the nine-month waiting period between permit and license to 45 days. It would also allow adult applicants to fulfill their requirement of 30 hours of classroom instruction by taking an Internet course at their own pace. Proponents said the change would let adults structure the class around work and child care schedules.

The legislation would also remove the requirement for 60 hours of supervised driving for those over 18. But if a license candidate over 18 is found to have committed a moving violation, the applicant would have to hold a learner's permit for the same nine-month period that applies to teens.

The legislation would retain a requirement that adult applicants take six hours of behind-the-wheel training in addition to the 30 hours of classroom instruction. Adults, like teens, would have to complete a three-hour drug and alcohol education program.

This year's Senate bill is sponsored by Democratic Sens. Jamie Raskin of Montgomery County and Victor Ramirez of Prince George's County. A House version, sponsored by Del. Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore, will be heard later this month.

Ramirez said he's been hearing complaints about the current requirements from constituents. He said the enhanced requirements are appropriate for those 16 or 17 years old but not for older applicants

"When you are older, things are a little different, and I think your maturity level's a little different as well," he said.

Andrea Payne Roethke, senior policy analyst with the Job Opportunities Task Force, said the steeper hurdles for new adult drivers in Maryland have not been shown to make driving safer. "Unfortunately, driver's ed is not proven to improve safety behind the wheel," she said.

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