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A License to a Better Life

November 2003 / Health and Human Services, Workforce Development / Abell Reports

Owning a car is often a necessity for living and working in Maryland. But for many low-income families, getting a license and maintaining ownership are unattainable goals. Barriers to driver’s licensing and ownership must be lowered.

It is not without ample reason that the age we live in is called the “Automobile Age.” Consider: Post-World War II has seen a dramatic decline in public transportation. Simultaneously and perhaps consequently, there has been a meteoric rise in the use of automobiles, not just for family vacations but for the bread-and-butter business of getting to work, to school, to child care, and to doctor’s appointments. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the State of Maryland, 86% of workers 16 years and older drive to work (74% drive alone) and only 7% rely on public transportation. Indeed, the two-car family is replacing the one-car family, with more than a third of American households owning two cars or more. In the business of living, owning a car is no longer a luxury but a necessity.

Even in a city like Baltimore with a public transit system, access to a car is necessary. Baltimore continues to face a “spatial mismatch” between the locations of jobs and the homes of many low-income residents. Many entry-level jobs are not easy to reach by public transit, and many of the better paying jobs for low-income workers require a driver’s license. Unfortunately, car ownership and even a driver’s license are unattainable for many low-income working families. States can set policies that either ease or increase the costs of buying and insuring a car and obtaining a driver’s license. With support from The Abell Foundation, Dr. Jay Chunn and Dr. Allissa Gardenhire researched barriers to driver licensing for low-income residents of Baltimore City. Their key findings include:

  • Maryland is among the most restrictive states for obtaining a driver’s license.
  • It costs more to get a driver’s license in Maryland than anywhere else in the U.S. In fact, first-time drivers in Maryland face costs averaging $330, which far exceeds the national average of $20.
  • Barriers to driving and driver licensing are significant for low-income individuals.

In this article, Michael Robbins builds upon Dr. Chunn’s and Dr. Gardenhire’s work through survey research, interviews with relevant officials and program administrators, and cost analysis. He finds the following:

  • Maryland is the only state that requires adults to attend driver education school (at a cost of $250 to $300) and to document 40 hours of accompanied driving before obtaining a driver’s license. This requirement is a substantial roadblock for low-income persons attempting to get a license, and it is a windfall for driver education schools. The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration does not have evidence that this requirement results in fewer traffic accidents involving adult drivers.