Editorial: Safety is served by licensing all drivers

January 18, 2013 

Denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants endangers us all. Traffic safety and law enforcement officials have known that for some time. While the analysis is not confined to unlicensed immigrants, a new study by the California Department of Motor Vehicles provides additional evidence.

DMV researchers examined 23 years of two-vehicle fatal crashes where only one driver was at fault. Compared with validly licensed drivers, those who had their licenses suspended or revoked were 2.63 times more likely to cause a fatal crash, while unlicensed drivers were 2.73 times more likely.

The study did not specifically quantify the number of unlicensed drivers involved in accidents who were unable to obtain licenses because they were undocumented immigrants. But researchers conclude that their numbers have "likely … increased " since new laws took effect in individual states and nationally, denying licenses to immigrants unable to provide proof of legal residency.

California has seen a precipitous rise in the number of unlicensed-driver fatal crashes after enacting a 1994 law barring illegal immigrants from obtaining new licenses or renewing existing ones. While fatal crashes declined overall between 1998 and 2007, the rate of fatal crashes involving unlicensed drivers in the state rose a startling 49 percent.

Last year, the Legislature approved and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a measure that will allow some 400,000 undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses. Most of those eligible were brought into this country as children; the Obama administration has announced plans to delay action on deportation proceedings against them for at least two years.

Lawmakers should go further. Experience shows undocumented immigrants will drive whether licensed or not. Denying them a license means their knowledge of traffic laws has not been tested. It means they cannot register their cars or buy insurance. Because the consequences are dire, unlicensed immigrant drivers are more likely to flee the scene of an accident.

Laws denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants don't stem the flow of illegal immigrants into this country. As the new DMV study suggests, they just make our highways more dangerous. They should be repealed.

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