As part of a budget-trimming effort, the state Motor Vehicle Administration has decided to reassign 20 field agents -- one-third of its investigative force responsible for cracking down on uninsured drivers.
Field agents have been responsible for, among other things, going to homes or other locations to confiscate license plates from uninsured vehicles. That function no longer will be performed, state officials said yesterday.
Ronald L. Freeland, the MVA's administrator, said he concluded that the confiscations were inefficient. About 3,800 plates were taken by the agency's 57 agents last year -- about one per agent every three work days.
"The unit wasn't yielding the productivity that could make a difference out there," Mr. Freeland said. "We don't think in any way we are endangering the public or harming insurance companies."
Agents gradually are being shifted to fill job vacancies within the MVA, he said, as will 10 or more support staff. No layoffs or salary reductions are involved.
The remaining investigative unit members will continue in their other responsibilities, including checking on cars that may be registered out of state illegally, researching public complaints of dangerous drivers, reviewing police reports of fatal accidents, and investigating cases for the MVA's medical advisory board.
Mr. Freeland said the agency still intends to pursue uninsured drivers. The MVA frequently holds up license renewals and suspends registrations of cars driven by people without insurance.
But without confiscations, uninsured drivers with a suspended registration won't lose their license plates right away -- in effect allowing them to drive undetected until the dates on the tags expire. They also could be caught if a police officer happens to stop them for other reasons and checks their registration.
The MVA learns of uninsured motorists primarily by pulling names at random from its license records, then asking insurance companies if the driver is covered.
One insurance industry official said yesterday that she doubted that ending the confiscations would have much effect on driver behavior or on insurance rates.
While anything the MVA does to deter uninsured drivers helps keep insurance rates down for everyone, the field agents had such a modest impact that their absence probably won't alter the cost of car insurance, said Andrea M. Covell, a vice president with Government Employees Insurance Co.
The decision to reassign the agents was made last month to comply with Gov. Parris N. Glendening's directive to trim budgets and to eliminate inefficient state programs, Mr. Freeland said.