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CLOSING MOTOR-VEHICLE RECORDS WOULD ULTIMATELY HARM THE PUBLIC

SHARE CLOSING MOTOR-VEHICLE RECORDS WOULD ULTIMATELY HARM THE PUBLIC

A move to further limit the public's access to government records in the name of privacy rights is under way at the state Legislature. HB175, co-sponsored by Reps. Nancy S. Lyon, R-Bountiful, Mary Carlson, D-Salt Lake, and Reese Hunter, R-Salt Lake, would shut the door on all motor vehicle records.

The bill closely resembles one pending in Congress, which would do much the same nationwide.Both measures are awkward attempts to protect the public, mostly in response to concerns about stalkers, who need only a license-plate number to obtain the name, address and phone number of a potential victim.

But in their never-ending zeal to protect us from ourselves, lawmakers would remove an important tool for journalists and for people who want valuable information.

Journalists nationwide have used motor-vehicle records to expose wrongs that otherwise would go unchecked. In Minnesota, one paper uncovered a list of airline pilots who still were flying despite having drunk-driving convictions. In another report, a television station uncovered an illegal scheme to rebuild and sell cars that were involved in wrecks. Both stories provided information that ultimately protected the public's safety.

In Utah, the Department of Motor Vehicles for years has sold its records to profitmaking companies. Ironically, the media hadn't asked for a large amount of these until the end of 1993. That's when the Deseret News obtained a copy of virtually all available DMV records on computer tapes. So far, this acquisition has resulted only in one interesting (but certainly not threatening or irresponsible) story on how many people have license plates identifying them as an alumnus of a Utah college or university.

But other, more important stories are coming. One hopes the Utah bill is not a rash, knee-jerk reaction to the first media attempts to obtain the files.

Both bills clearly are overkill. Without a doubt, a few unscrupulous people have used motor-vehicle records to stalk or harass victims. But these instances are few and far between, and criminals have plenty of other avenues available for obtaining similar information. Victims also conceivably could use information obtained from license plates to learn the identity of their stalkers.

More importantly, the bills ignore the fact that state residents pay for officials to collect and store motor-vehicle information. This entitles them to inspect these records. Current law allows anyone opposed to the information being public to ask that their own records be kept from view. This is a procedure similar to unlisting a telephone number and is a reasonable option for any worried citizen.

Instead of protecting the public, both bills ultimately would place a shroud of secrecy around important information. Both Congress and the state Legislature should stop before enacting such damaging legislation.