Researchers at Stanford University recently published a study showing that a 2013 California law allowing unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses led to a significant reduction in hit and run accidents and did not increase the rate of traffic accidents and fatalities. The study’s authors said this latter finding “suggests there is no empirical support for the claim that unauthorized immigrants are less cautious drivers or generally more likely to cause accidents.” Instead, the findings suggest that “providing driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants led to improved traffic safety” and to “significant positive externalities for the communities in which they live.” What significance might this finding have for policymakers in North Carolina?
North Carolina law. North Carolina’s current driver’s license rule for unauthorized immigrants is easy to explain: Unauthorized immigrants are not eligible to obtain a North Carolina driver’s license, learner’s permit, or identification card. That was not the case before 2006. In fact, in the early 2000s, North Carolina had a widespread reputation for being a state in which a person could easily obtain a driver’s license, regardless of whether the person was an authorized immigrant or whether the person even lived in the state. The licensing system was substantially amended following the U.S. Congress’s enactment of the REAL ID Act of 2005. That act was a response to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that the federal government set standards for the issuance of identification documents such as driver’s licenses. North Carolina legislation enacted in 2006 requires that an applicant for a North Carolina driver’s license produce a Social Security Card or other documentation issued by the U.S. government proving his or her lawful presence in the United States. That’s precisely the sort of documentation that unauthorized immigrants lack.
California law. According to the Stanford study, California is one of 12 states that, along with the District of Columbia, have adopted laws that allow unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Section 12801.9 of California Motor Vehicle Code, which became effective on January 1, 2015, provides for the issuance of licenses bearing a special designation for such drivers. The licenses must bear the following notice: “This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes. This license is issued only as a license to drive a motor vehicle. It does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration, or public benefits.” The statute prohibits anyone from using this type of license to consider the licensee’s citizenship or immigration status as a basis for an investigation, arrest, citation, or detention. More than 600,000 licenses were issued under section 12801.9 in the first year it was effective.
Key findings. The Stanford study estimates that Section 12801.9 led to an average decrease in the rate of hit and run accidents of between 7 and 10 percent, which translates to about 4,000 fewer hit and run accidents in 2015. As previously noted, the study found no change in the rate of accidents. Researchers reported that vehicle registration data following enactment of the law indicated that unauthorized immigrants who obtained special driver’s licenses were less likely to register a car than other newly licensed drivers. This finding suggested to researchers that these drivers were already driving (without a driver’s license) before California’s driver’s license law was amended.
A potential explanation. The study’s authors posit that accidents did not increase under the new law because most new license holders were driving before they were authorized to do so. As a result, most of them had sufficient driving experience; obtaining a driver’s license did not change their routine driving behavior. As for the effect on hit and run accidents, the authors said that the prohibition against using the license to consider an individual’s immigration status reduced the incentive for a driver to flee the scene for fear of being detained and deported. In addition, once they became licensed, such drivers no longer had to worry that the vehicle they were driving would be seized and impounded on the basis that it was driven by a person without a license.
The significance of reducing hit and runs. The study reports that reducing hit and runs is a benefit for public safety given the serious injuries and fatalities that can result from delayed medical reporting. It also has a positive economic effect by making it more likely that the responsible party will bear the financial burden of the accident. The study estimated that 4,000 fewer hit and run accidents resulted in $17 milllion being charged to the at-fault driver and his or her insurance company rather than to the hit and run victim. In addition, researchers estimated that the decline in hit and run accidents saved not-at-fault drivers about $3.5 million in out-of-pocket expenses for car repairs.
Relevance for policymakers in NC and elsewhere. The study’s authors note that initiatives like California’s have been debated in other states with significant populations of unauthorized immigrants, but that no one had, until now, studied the impact of such laws on traffic safety. While the estimated 350,000 unauthorized immigrants in North Carolina, representing 3.4 percent of the state’s overall population, are far outnumbered by the 2.6 million such persons in California, many of the same concerns regarding unlicensed driving by this population are present here. North Carolina legislators’ proposals for eliminating unauthorized driving by unauthorized immigrants have to date focused on deterrence rather than a special licensing approach. Last session, House Bill 338 proposed increasing the punishment for driving without a license for people who (like unauthorized immigrants) are not eligible to be licensed. This session’s House Bill 471 likewise proposes increasing the punishment for repeat offenders of the driver’s license law and provides for forfeiture of the vehicle driven by a person in the commission of a third or subsequent no operator’s license offense. Whatever approach policymakers adopt, empirical evidence about the impact of the California approach can help inform the policy debate.