Beginning Jan 2, 16-year-olds in Maryland will be issued "provisional" driver's licenses, barring them from driving between 1 and 6 a.m. unless they are accompanied by a licensed driver over 21 years old.

Under the new four-year provisional program, financed by a $750,000 federal grant, 16-year-olds who maintain a violation-free driving record for six months will receive a regular license without restrictions.

"We're no longer saying the privilege of driving is just a function of age," said Patrick Hyle, project coordinator for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. "We're saying they will have to prove their worth."

The motivating force behing the program, he said, is an alarmingly higher accident rate among 16- and 17-year olds than in other age groups. Similarly, he noted, younger driver account for a far higher proportion of moving violations than adults.

Before the new program, authorized by the 1978 Maryland legislature, there were no special restrictions in the state on 16-year-old drivers. The Senate version of the bill would have imposed the curfew at the discretion of the Motor Vehicle Administration. The House , however, inserted the 1 to 6 a.m. curfew.

"This weakened it," said Sen Ed Conroy (D-Prince George's), one of the principal sponsors. "We thought we would lose the federal grant as a result of the amendment but the feds went along with it."

"There were "strong feelings," Conroy said, simply to raise the minimum age for any driver's license to 18. "We felt that was too drastic, that it would penalize the majority of young people who didn't deserve to be penalized."

The measure as adopted, he said, represents a "middle-of-the-road approach."

Regulations on teen-age driving vary widely from state to state. Virginia issues licenses to 16-year-olds who have taken approved driver educaton courses and have the consent of parents or guardian The district requires only parental consent for those 16 to 18.

New York state issues "junior licenses" to 16-year-olds to drive during daylight hours, except in New York City and adjoining Nassau County Illinois licenses 16-year-olds who have taken driver's education.*