By Ben Poston
Unlicensed drivers in California -- the vast majority of whom are illegal immigrants -- are nearly three times as likely to cause a fatal crash as licensed drivers, according to a study by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The report suggests that merely meeting the modest requirements necessary to get a license -- passing a written exam and driving test -- could improve road safety and help reduce the several thousand fatalities that occur in the state each year.
"If you don't hold people accountable to acceptable standards, then we get people that aren't prepared and don't have the skill set," said Tyler Izen, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
The recently released DMV report is the agency's first significant analysis of unlicensed drivers in 15 years and adds fuel to the debate over whether illegal immigrants should be eligible for licenses.
Immigrant rights groups say that granting such licenses would reduce fatalities and costly uninsured motorist claims. Insurance companies paid out $634 million in claims for collisions related to uninsured motorists in 2009, according to the most recent data from the state.
It "really goes against public safety because the current law forces people who would otherwise be properly licensed to drive without one," said Angela Sanbrano, board president for the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles.
Critics, however, argue that giving licenses to undocumented immigrants merely rewards illegal activity.
"One study shouldn't trump the obvious -- if you don't want illegal aliens in the country, why do you want to encourage them to be on the roads?" said Bob Dane, spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform. "It just defies common sense."
The DMV report looked at 23 years of data on fatal accidents. Its conclusions were similar to the last such report in 1997, which looked at accident data from 1987 to 1992. The latest report was also the first analysis since a 1994 change in the state law that required all licensed drivers show proof of legal residency, which significantly increased the number of unlicensed drivers.
Rough estimates put the number of unlicensed drivers at about 2 million, compared with the approximately 24 million licensed drivers.
Many of the unlicensed motorists say they would get licenses if they could.
Maria Galvan, a 42-year-old illegal immigrant in Los Angeles, said she has little choice but to drive to work, pick up groceries and take her daughters to school.
"We need driver's licenses to be comfortable and be trusted and follow the law," Galvan said.
Repeated legislative efforts to allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses have been met with stiff resistance.
Former Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) tried unsuccessfully nine times to get a law passed.
But the political winds may be changing.
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law allowing some illegal immigrants who qualify for a new federal work permit program to get driver's licenses.
Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes said it was time to offer that opportunity to all illegal immigrants in California.
"No matter who is behind the wheel, they need to be prepared and understand the rules of the road," Reyes said. "That's a significant issue when you live in a city that has a culture driven by cars."
Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) introduced a bill last week that would provide driver's licenses to anyone who can show they pay taxes, regardless of their immigration status.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca said last year that they were in favor of such a measure.
Supporters point out that granting licenses to illegal immigrants also could reduce the number of hit-and-run accidents. Unlicensed drivers leave crash scenes at significantly higher rates than licensed drivers, according to a 2011 national report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
"I suspect that the reason people hit-and-run is they are afraid of the consequences," said Izen, the police union president. "Maybe if they had a driver's license, they wouldn't run."
There is budding support around the country for expanding the pool of licensed drivers.
In Illinois, a bill to allow special licenses for illegal immigrants passed the state Legislature this week, and Gov. Pat Quinn has pledged to sign it. Washington and New Mexico already have similar laws.
But Dane, of the immigration-reform group said the effects of granting driver's licenses go beyond just allowing people to legally drive. Licenses provide a legal foothold for residency, he said. They add another benefit that legitimizes the presence of illegal immigrants.
"It's a gold-plated membership card into society," Dane said.
The report also has added to the controversy over the Los Angeles Police Commission's policy change last year that eased car impound rules on unlicensed drivers.
Unlicensed drivers stopped over minor traffic infractions no longer have their cars automatically impounded for 30 days. If the driver can show that he or she has auto insurance, valid identification and no previous citations for unlicensed driving, the car will be released.
The L.A. police union filed suit to block the policy change last year, saying it would put dangerous drivers back on the road sooner. The new DMV research proves their point, Izen said.
"It is our hope that in the new year, the DMV study will be the impetus for city officials to revisit this issue and show that they are serious about putting public safety first," he said.
(c)2013 the Los Angeles Times