Illegal & Behind the Wheel: How Undocumented Drivers Treat Our Roads—And How They’re Treated for It

By: Bridget Clerkin April 17, 2017
Undocumented drivers are making California's roads safer--but they're under attack elsewhere.
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California is not exactly known for its breezy highway driving.

The state’s roads snake their way through its highly populated areas, gaining lanes and traffic as they go, until eventually—inevitably—they get absorbed by a freeway, like tributaries depositing into a river.

And in 2015, California added more than 605,000 drivers to that flow—all of whom were residing in the state, and the country, illegally.

That much influx could have a profound effect on even the roads most lightly traveled, so last year, Stanford University decided to investigate how much, exactly, those new drivers have changed roadway conditions in the Golden State.

The results, they said, surprised them.

Safety in Numbers

Released earlier this month, the study found that the hit-and-run rate fell at least 7% in California in 2015, compared to 2014, with an estimated 4,000 fewer hit-and-run instances attributed to the new driver demographics.

That resulted not just in generally safer and more responsible roadways but more savings for everyone: Specifically, $3.5 million in out-of-pocket expenses for would-be victims of the irresponsible accidents, according to the Stanford researchers.

The shift also transferred $17 million in accident-related expenses to the insurance companies of at-fault drivers, further helping to ease the financial fallout of such incidents for those who found themselves on the wrong end of a hit-and-run in 2015.

The numbers were crunched, in part, by using information provided by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The agency was granted permission to issue licenses to undocumented residents in the state starting January 2, 2015, thanks to Assembly Bill 60 (called AB 60). The measure lifted the requirement for proof of legal residence in the country in order to be issued a driver’s license.

While California is not the first state to pass such legislation (it’s actually the 12th), it’s by far the biggest—and most populated by undocumented residents—to adopt the less-restrictive rules. Of the 11.1 million undocumented immigrants who reside in the United States, nearly 10% call California home, according to numbers compiled by the Pew Research Center.

Allowing such a large portion of the population to take to the roads legally returns what control of the situation that can be had to the state, allowing it to ensure, at least, that everyone behind the wheel in California has been properly informed of driving laws, passed all testing, and can provide proof of auto insurance—a relief to many police on the streets, Los Angeles Police Captain Andrew Neiman told the L.A. Times.

Having an AB 60 license also likely promotes safer driving behavior from immigrants who would probably be on the road anyway—and makes it especially easier to stay behind in the event of an accident—by removing the fear of possible deportation for being caught behind the wheel, according to the Stanford study’s conclusions.

And additional research into the program is planned, with the Stanford team hoping to uncover further insights about how far AB 60 license holders are willing to drive, and whether an inclination to travel more could lead to better access to education and health care services for license holders and their families.

An ICE Cold Reception

Even as the licenses have helped make the roads safer for everyone, they could be used to make life for their holders much less secure.

Like nearly all other government-required documents, licenses can be used to gather—and track—personal information on millions of people. Names, addresses, and dates of birth, among other details, are all given freely in order to obtain the card.

In Vermont, where those illegally residing in the country are also allowed to have licenses, this connection has already been seized upon by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials—who work under the Department of Homeland Security.

Records revealed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last week showed that the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles colluded with the federal agency to give up personal information it had on some Vermont-based immigrants using data from its driver’s license rolls. The move broke a previous settlement agreement against such actions, which was established in 2016.

In at least one case that has been reported by the Associated Press, such collaboration led directly to deportation proceedings—that of Jordanian citizen Abdel Rababah, who applied for driving privileges in Vermont in 2015.

Whether such licensing programs will be deemed “too good” for undocumented residents or too good of an opportunity to pass up in our current bitter political atmosphere is one question no amount of studies may be able to answer.

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