By Ananda Shorey
WASHINGTON – A new law restricting the release of personal information from drivers licenses will cost Maryland about $1.1 million in administrative costs and lost sales when it takes effect this summer, state officials estimate.
But Motor Vehicle Administrator Anne Ferro said she did not expect the loss to have a significant impact on her agency’s budget, and privacy advocates called it a small price to pay for blocking intrusion into people’s lives.
“Absent a compelling reason, the government should not be releasing that (drivers license) information without the people’s consent,” said Suzanne Smith, the legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland. “We believe that privacy should not be the price of getting a drivers license.”
Businesses and media groups that rely on that information, however, see it as just one more step in the closing of what have been open, public records.
“It is not right to close off public records that have always been open,” said Jim Donahue, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. “It is public information and the press uses that to ensure accuracy.”
Maryland has little choice in the change, which is mandated as of July 1 by the federal government. The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act will require that states keep drivers license information from the public in most instances, unless a motorist specifically requests that his or her information be made available.
The new law requires that motorists “opt-in” to the program to make their information available to the public. That is a change from the current law, under which drivers can “opt-out,” checking a box on their license forms that says their information is to be kept private. Drivers license information is now public for any motorists who do not opt-out.
The “opt-out” provision took effect in 1997, and Donahue said it has worked well.
“Maryland enacted a law in 1997 that we urged and supported,” Donahue said. “The following year they enacted an ‘opt-in,’ which we opposed, because that, in effect, closed off all information to the public.”
Larry Majerus, vice president of government relations for the Polk Co. in Southfield, Mich., also said the new law goes too far.
The Polk Co. gathers motor vehicle title and registration information for things such as safety recalls. Majerus called the opt-in requirement an “unnecessary restriction on public records,” which he said manufacturers and dealers have been using since 1922.
“It will greatly damage many businesses, especially those in the automotive industry. The opt-out systems that were already in place were working to effectively protect privacy,” Majerus said in testimony Tuesday to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Related Agencies.
Ferro, in testimony to the same subcommittee, avoided the question of whether the change was proper or not and focused instead on whether it could be accomplished. She said it could.
The state makes money off the sale of drivers license records to businesses and private individuals, but Ferro told the subcommittee that there was not the steep drop in income that state officials feared when the opt-out provision took effect in 1997.
“We have found that that has not been the case,” said Ferro, one of a number of witnesses testifying on implementation of the new law.
Ferro said the state earned $14 million from the sale of individual driver’s license records and $900,000 from the sale of bulk records to direct mail and other businesses last year. Individual records cost $5 to $10. The bulk mailing list costs $500 for up to 10,000 documents and 5 cents per record above that.
Those sales will continue on a limited basis, because the new regulations will not close driver’s records completely. Consequently, Ferro said the MVA only expects about a $900,000 drop in sales next year. The state will probably have to spend $235,000 to replace forms, change computer programs and notify motorists of the new law, she said, for a total cost of $1.1 million.
The new law will close records to private citizens and commercial mail solicitors as of July 1. But there remains a long list of approved cases under which people and businesses, including licensed private detectives, insurance agencies and towing companies, can purchase personal information from drivers’ licenses.
“Because you drove by and looked cute in your car and I want your address — that is not an approved case,” for release of a driver’s information, said Ferro.
She said MVA employees are being told they should follow their instincts about who should get the information under the new regulations and who should not. “When in doubt, don’t give it out,” she said.