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Md. cuts subsidies for driver training at what cost? More first-time motorists receive private instruction


It is the busiest morning of the week at Maryland's busiest commuter incubator.

Make no mistake: The Motor Vehicle Administration's bustling Glen Burnie office is not where fledgling drivers are nursed. It's where the heat is applied.

If these future commuters fly -- that is, if they can parallel park -- they are welcomed to that elite corps known as licensed drivers.

Fail, and Mom drives you home for more hours of practice at the local parking lot.

But there is bad news in the nest these days, Intrepid Commuter has learned. Seems the hatchlings aren't getting the same training as in years past.

Examiners say they have no statistical evidence to back this up, but they have the uneasy feeling that a growing number of teen-agers are showing up ill-prepared to take the driver's license test.

"When they had driver education in the high schools, they had better training," says Clarence D. Sellers, head of license examining at the MVA's Glen Burnie office. "They just got a chance to spend more time with it."

For the first time in recent history, this past year more first-time drivers went to the MVA with private-school driver training than public school.

Beginning last month, the state stopped subsidizing driver training of any kind.

That saved Maryland taxpayers about $3 million, but at what cost?

Peg Kirk of Ellicott City, who paid for her 17-year-old son David's 30 hours of education at a driver training school last spring, wasn't impressed with its quality.

But Howard County's public school system doesn't offer driver education anymore, so she didn't have much of a choice.

"Public school or even summer school would have been better," Mrs. Kirk says. "He didn't learn a thing in the class. Maybe he learned something on the road, but I think it was a waste of my time."

David, incidentally, passed his test on the second try.

Susan Miller of Arbutus, who paid $98 to put her 15-year-old daughter, Sandi, through a summer-school driving course at Lansdowne High School, also worries about the extent of training.

The instructor seemed well-prepared, and Sandi passed all the tests, Mrs. Miller says, but she didn't spend much time with the difficult maneuvers.

"She only parallel parked once or twice the whole time."

MVA Administrator W. Marshall Rickert disputes the notion that public schools teach driver education any better than driver training schools. The failure rates on driver's license tests "just don't back that up," he says.

On average, about two-thirds of the people who take the Class C test pass.

"And I can't support any speculation that the failure rate is going to be increasing," Mr. Rickert says.

Still, it is a cause for concern to Mr. Rickert and others that the state is no longer investing in the instruction of future drivers in either public schools or private training schools.

Lawmakers have indicated that they intend to restore some subsidy to high schools only in the next fiscal year, but that's not likely to help school systems that have already eliminated driver education.

Whether the students are well-prepared, they will keep showing up at Glen Burnie to get a license.

The line of cars waiting for the driver's license test is so long Saturday mornings it snakes all the way around the MVA headquarters.

The youngsters who fail will most likely flub at one of three places on the driving range: parallel parking, the three-point turn, or the stop sign.

But the worst, Mr. Sellers says, are the ones who got their training from parents or friends. "They do everything wrong that people in the streets do. They don't use turn signals, they don't look, they don't yield."

Blue highways

On quite a different matter, a faithful reader asks us about those blue signs you frequently see along the highway advertising fuel, food, lodging and campgrounds.

His questions: Are these things costing the taxpayers any money? And who decides what services get to advertise?

The answers: No and, with some limitations, the companies decide.

The signs are the responsibility of the State Highway Administration, which charges businesses that want to advertise.

Annual fees are based on highway administration costs. This year it's $1,117 to advertise in both directions of an expressway.

Created in the early 1980s, the program was an effort to give interstate travelers a little more information than was available on the standard generic signs.

Not all companies can advertise. They have to meet certain standards: Gasoline stations have to be located within one mile of the exit, for instance, and food services must be open by 7 a.m. each morning.

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