DMVs, the First Line of Defense

In the aftermath of 9-11, states are taking definitive steps to tighten up how and to whom driver's licenses are issued.

It didn't take long after September 11 for investigators to discover how the 19 hijackers were able to open bank accounts, rent apartments and board airplanes: They all held valid U.S. driver's licenses. Since the attacks, many states have taken action to revise their license policies, quickly tightening rules for identity and residency and closing loopholes that can lead to fraud.

In Florida--the state where a majority of the hijackers carried licenses--new driver's license legislation is aimed specifically at noncitizens. Foreigners who show up at the license offices are first granted a temporary permit while their credentials are checked. If they are legitimate, their licenses are subsequently mailed to them. The state has also designated about 10 offices as the only ones that take foreign applications, giving staff in those offices special training.

Florida also now issues foreigners a driver's license only for the length of their visa, not for the standard five years. A few of the hijackers were in the United States illegally because their visas had expired, yet they still held valid driver's licenses.

Rather than target foreigners, Virginia, where some hijackers got licenses, has tightened residency and identity requirements for all citizens. Applicants are no longer allowed to simply sign an affidavit swearing that they live in the state; now they must bring proof of residency, such as a utility bill or bank statement.

In other states, officials have changed their policies about photographs on licenses. In North Carolina, for instance, drivers used to be able to refuse a photo for religious reasons. Now a photo is required of everyone. Other states are proposing new training programs or new software to spot fraud.

Although many of the changes so far are fairly minor, several states are planning more substantive moves. In Michigan, the secretary of state has proposed a bill barring illegal immigrants from receiving driver's licenses. Currently, about half of the states allow illegal immigrants to hold licenses--to encourage them to buy insurance and ensure some knowledge of traffic laws. "There's a trade-off between highway safety and security," says Wayne Hurder, director of driver's license certification in North Carolina--a state that plans to continue allowing licenses for illegal immigrants.

In North Carolina, officials have tightened residency and other requirements and are also trying to use the terrorist attacks to improve their technology. The state has secured grant money to use facial-recognition software in its driver's licenses, which can prevent one person from getting multiple state IDs. Currently only three states collect biometric data; new consideration of driver's license laws may increase that number.

Some groups hope that even more comprehensive driver's license changes will be on the horizon. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators is asking Congress for federal funds to help states link their databases and standardize their ID cards. "We want to make the process as uniform as possible," says Jason King, the association's spokesperson. "We need to make it more secure." The September 11 attacks have also led to calls for a national identification card, but that idea has not had much momentum in terms of concrete policy.