Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants: A matter of public safety?

The 110 Freeway in Los Angeles, November 2010
The 110 Freeway in Los Angeles, November 2010
Photo by savemejebus/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Los Angeles Police Department chief Charlie Beck has been making headlines since yesterday for his coming out in support of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, making a case for licensing these drivers as a matter of public safety.

"Why wouldn't you want to put people through a rigorous testing process?" Beck told the Los Angeles Times yesterday. "Why wouldn't you want to better identify people who are going to be here?"

It's long been a hotly contested idea in California, one characterized by proponents of tighter immigration laws as an undeserved privilege for people who are in the United States illegally. Some favor impounding the cars of unlicensed drivers, a policy that critics say tends to disproportionately affect low-paid immigrants, but ultimately doesn't keep people who need to drive to work off the road.

Beck, for one, has proposed that police not impound the cars of unlicensed drivers who can prove they have insurance, can show legitimate identification and have no previous unlicensed driving convictions.

According to a 2000 report from the AAA Traffic Safety Foundation, one in five fatal crashes nationwide involved a driver whose license was canceled, expired, or otherwise didn't have one. Would granting licenses to undocumented immigrants and ensuring they meet the criteria for holding a driver's license help improve public safety, given they are driving anyway, or not? Much of the data on unlicensed drivers is several years old, but here's a bit more of what's out there:

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has this posted on its website ("S/R" refers to suspended/revoked):

In at least some regions of the country, drivers who have never held proper license are often illegal aliens who fear detection if licensure is sought. In a California study, this driver group is reported to be even more overrepresented in crashes than drivers with S/R licenses by a factor of 4.9:1 (DeYoung et al., 1997).

The threat of detection and deportation are believed to be a major reason this group avoids seeking licensure, and often their driving provides transportation for other illegal alien workers (DeYoung, personal communication, 2000). Because of increasing numbers of these workers, as well as the dependence of significant segments of the economy on their labor, this issue is one that cries out for innovative solutions.

...When unlicensed drivers are also undocumented aliens, it is not likely that traditional sanctions will keep them off the road. These drivers are often providing transportation for many other similarly undocumented aliens, and the transportation is essential for their employment. In the case of S/R drivers, traditional sanctions (warning letters, probation, license restriction) are less effective because they do not fully incapacitate the drivers (DeYoung, 1999). Something more is needed.

2008 update to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety's earlier report cited, among other things, the prevalence of unlicensed drivers in hit-and-run accidents. The report took in national fatal-crash data from 2001 through 2005, distinguishing between drivers with unknown license status and those whose lack of a valid license could be determined:
Of these drivers of unknown license status, 53.9 percent were hit-and-run drivers, who fled from the crash scene. Available data from hit-and-run drivers whose license status could be determined shows that 41.1 percent of these drivers were driving illegally with an invalid license or no license, compared to 11.0 percent of drivers who remained at the scenes of their crashes. Crashes involving drivers of unknown license status resulted in 1,558 annual deaths.

There have been several unlicensed-driver crashes in Los Angeles in recent weeks, including a triple fatality in South Los Angeles earlier this month in which the driver, who survived the crash, had been previously cited for not having a license and was not an undocumented immigrant.

Which is worth pointing out, as homegrown unlicensed drivers are common as well, and sanctions don't necessarily keep them off the road, either.

But getting back to licenses for undocumented immigrants: What do you think? Is a driver's license a privilege that should be reserved for citizens and legal residents, or is it a way for law enforcement to keep tabs on who is driving and how qualified these drivers are to be on the road? And even if there were to be a two-tier license system, as Chief Beck has suggested, how willing would undocumented immigrants be to come forward for one?

Three states, New Mexico, Washington, and Utah, currently grant licenses to undocumented immigrants. Officials in New Mexico and Washington have voiced concerns about fraud, while in Utah, the licenses granted are restricted, allowing for driving privileges only.