ST. PAUL -- Starting next month, driver's license data in Minnesota will be closed to the public unless the license holder checks a box to keep it open, Department of Public Safety officials said Thursday.
The Division of Driver and Vehicle Services is reversing current procedure to comply with a federal mandate that requires the information be closed to most people except certain businesses, researchers and some others.
The federal government has threatened to cut highway aid to states that don't do so, potentially costing Minnesota about $1.8 million.
Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, said if the information is to be closed, it should be made private across the board.
''Some people lobbied Congress and got exemptions,'' he said. ''There will be a lot of people who have access to the information, but the public won't be able to get it.''
Attorneys, insurance companies, private detectives, banks, tow truck companies and a handful of other groups will still be allowed to see or copy the records. It mainly would restrict the information from commercial uses and ''the generally curious,'' said Vicki Albu, interim deputy director of the agency.
Current practice keeps driver's license information public unless applicants ask for it to be private. With the limited exceptions, the change will require all information to be private unless the applicant requests that it be public.
The Legislature considered changing the state law to comply with the federal rule last session, but a bill never passed.
Public Safety Commissioner Charlie Weaver said the change doesn't require legislative approval.
''We believe that limiting access to driving information is an important step toward maintaining individual privacy rights,'' he said.
Weaver said the automatic protection of personal records of Minnesota's 3.4 million licensed drivers will not affect access by law enforcement.
Albu said it's the state's intent to allow reporters to continue to have access to the information.
''Good intentions, when push comes to shove, are inadequate when it comes to the public's right to know,'' said Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association. That group and others had opposed the change when a bill was before the Legislature.
And, he said, allowing such a large number of exemptions makes the law ''a parody of what privacy laws should be.''
Minnesota currently sells driver's license information to companies that use it for targeted advertising. The state brings in about $2.4 million per year through the sales to cover its costs of producing the lists, Albu said.
The department estimates that it will lose about $240,000 in sales per year once the information is restricted.
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