WASHINGTON – Maryland teens are flocking to driving schools in an effort to beat a batch of new restrictions that will make it harder to get a drivers license after July 1.
The new restrictions will require that new drivers complete 40 hours of supervised driving and hold a learner’s permit for four months instead of the current 14 days before they can get their permanent licenses, among other changes.
“Driving schools right now across the state are seeing bigger enrollment than they did last year at this time,” said Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.
“We certainly expect to see a surge (in license applications) in mid- to late-spring, right up to June 30,” Scher said. “I think kids know that July 1 is the magic day.”
While many of the new graduated-license restrictions will apply to first- time drivers of any age, they seem to have teens particularly worried.
“I knew it was going to be harder soon,” said Paul Kalsi, 16, of Silver Spring as he waited recently for an Easy Method Driving School class to begin at White Oak Middle School. “That’s one of the major points in why I’m here now.”
The new requirements are the latest in the state’s attempts to cut down on the high number of accidents and traffic deaths involving teens in Maryland.
While teens ages 15 to 20 make up less than 8 percent of the state’s population, they were involved in more than 26 percent of Maryland’s 568 fatal highway crashes in 1997, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data.
The same age group accounts for less than 10 percent of the state’s driving-age residents, but when teens were driving they accounted for more than 17 percent of the fatal accidents in 1997, or 99 of the 568, according to a Capital News Service analysis of the transportation data.
And even though Maryland’s current laws prohibit teens with “provisional” licenses from driving unsupervised between midnight and 5 a.m., there were 26 fatal crashes during those hours in 1997 with teens behind the wheel.
Teens have a higher percentage of crashes from midnight to 5 a.m. than do all Maryland drivers combined, and Maryland teens have a higher percentage of early-morning crashes than the national average for teens, according to the data.
“They (teens) need to have more driving time behind the wheel,” said Mantill Williams, spokesman for the Mid-Atlantic office of the American Automobile Association. “Graduated licensing provides that because it mandates that they go through supervised driving programs.”
Williams said that states that have adopted graduated-licensing programs “have seen a decrease in teen crashes and fatalities.”
Maryland currently has a graduated-licensing program that Scher said is about average when compared to other states. The new regulations will put Maryland “right at the front” of states on this issue, he said.
New drivers will still need 30 hours of classroom driving instruction and six hours behind the wheel, as they do now. But after July 1, they will also need a logbook, signed by their parents, showing they have an additional 40 hours of supervised driving and they will have to hold a learners permit for four months.
The new regulations will extend provisional licenses from a year to 18 months, and boost penalties for teens who get tickets while driving on a provisional license. Scher said that provisional licensees will have to take a driving improvement course for their first ticket and could have their licenses revoked for a third violation.
The training and logbook regulations will apply to all first-time drivers, but older first-timers will not be forced to drive on a provisional license.
Scher said the MVA has been flooded with calls about the new guidelines.
“We certainly received a lot of calls from teens and parents,” he said. “They want to know, what are the basics, what do I have to do and how long do I have to keep my license.”
And driving schools say eager students like Kalsi are filling up classes quickly, trying to avoid this summer’s new requirements.
“The numbers have definitely started to increase … Attendance is way up,” said Dana Price of Nice & Easy Driving School in Baltimore.
Price, who said Nice & Easy can handle up to 30 students in a classroom, said the school now has “waiting lists at three or four of our six locations.”
“In the spring, business usually does pick up. But this early, I don’t think we were expecting it,” Price said.
While officials hope the new requirements will better prepare new drivers for the dangers of the road, and help lower highway deaths, some teens feel unfairly targeted.
“Not all of us are crazy drivers. That’s not true,” Kalsi said. “Look at adults, they mess up too.”
But Nicole Rene, 16, thinks the tougher criteria can be a good thing. Teens will still get their licenses, the Silver Spring teen said.
“I think they should give more time behind the wheel,” she said. “It would be safer.”