Safer Driving, Stronger Security

Gov. Spitzer took a step toward stronger homeland security, safer roads, and more stable families by lifting barriers to driver’s licenses for non citizens.

Last Friday, September 21, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer stood with the state’s heads of homeland security and department of motor vehicles, state legislators, and grassroots activists, to announce that New York will no longer require driver’s license applicants to provide a social security number or other proof of U.S. citizenship. This will allow the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who live in New York to apply for or renew driver’s licenses.

This move is good state policy and reflects a better understanding of the realities of homeland security, safe driving, and supporting families than knee-jerk policies that repeatedly find ways to punish undocumented immigrants. Here’s why:

Homeland Security

Four years ago, Spitzer’s predecessor stopped New York’s practice of allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. In one fell swoop, then Governor Pataki removed an estimated 152,000 people from the rolls of licensed drivers as their licenses expired. This meant that New York began operating under the pretense that these people simply ceased to exist.

The FBI, state police, and local police officers could no longer rely on driver’s license records to find a witness, identify a victim, or track a criminal. DMV records are often the first place police check when looking for someone. Add the people who would have become eligible to get a driver’s license in the intervening years to this number, and suddenly more than a quarter million people become virtual unknowns to law enforcement.

A New York driver’s license will continue to be one of the most secure forms of identification in the country. In addition to its existing “Six point ID requirement,” the DMV will add additional technology and train staff to verify foreign passports. Interestingly, it will also begin to test new technology that will compare faces of driver’s license applicants to a database of existing driver’s license holders to ensure “one person—one driver’s license.”

Safe Driving

Not surprisingly, it turns out that unlicensed drivers are not as safe as licensed ones. In its report “Unlicensed to Kill,” the Automobile Association of America showed that unlicensed drivers are five times more likely to be involved in a fatal car accident than drivers with a license. This makes sense. The process of getting a license requires that you demonstrate that you know driving laws and are capable of handling a vehicle.

Unlicensed drivers cannot get car insurance, so the cost of any accident they are in is covered by all of the people who do have insurance. The State Department of Insurance sees licensing the currently unlicensed as a windfall for New York consumers. They estimate that by reducing car insurance premium costs associated with unlicensed drivers, all purchasers of car insurance in New York will see a combined reduction of $120 million annually in premium costs.

Supporting Families

New York State residents, especially outside the mass transit of New York City, need cars for life’s basics: going to work, shopping for groceries, and getting to school. By ensuring that parents can legally drive to work and thus pay the bills back home, New York will go a long way toward strengthening families. What’s more, the state won’t have to spend a single new dollar on social services to do it. And as families increase their education levels—because of a simple thing like being able to drive to a class—their ability to meet their needs without state assistance will only improve further.

The reality is that when provided with the choice between feeding their kids and driving without a license or insurance, many parents will drive without the license or insurance. To force otherwise law abiding parents to take this risk on a daily basis adds unnecessary and undeserved stress to families.

Smart Government

The federal government took a pass on comprehensive immigration reform this year, and those who oppose immigrants continue to hammer away at any step in the right direction. Despite these roadblocks, there are leaders in this country who stand on the side of common sense. Continuing to ignore the reality of the estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants who reside in New York state would have been nonsensical, unsafe, and costly.

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Henry Fernandez

Senior Fellow