Addressing Collisions Involving Unlicensed Drivers and Drivers with Suspended or Revoked Licenses

The Type of Problem Being Addressed

It is estimated that as many as three-fourths of S/R drivers continue to drive, although they apparently drive less often and more carefully (van Oldenbeek and Coppin, 1965; Hagen et al., 1980; Ross and Gonzales, 1988; DeYoung, 1990). Even so, S/R drivers who continue driving are overrepresented in subsequent violations and crashes.

In at least some regions of the country, drivers who have never held proper license are often illegal aliens who fear detection if licensure is sought. In a California study, this driver group is reported to be even more overrepresented in crashes than drivers with S/R licenses by a factor of 4.9:1 (DeYoung et al., 1997). The threat of detection and deportation are believed to be a major reason this group avoids seeking licensure, and often their driving provides transportation for other illegal alien workers (DeYoung, personal communication, 2000). Because of increasing numbers of these workers, as well as the dependence of significant segments of the economy on their labor, this issue is one that cries out for innovative solutions.

A recent report (Griffin and DeLaZerda, 2000) analyzing 5 years of FARS data found that one out of five fatal crashes involves at least one driver who is not properly licensed (U/S/R, expired, canceled or denied, unknown). Because exposure data were not available, mileage rates of involvement could not be calculated for each category or for validly licensed drivers.

Convicted drunken drivers (i.e., DUI or DWI offenders) probably represent the group of U/S/R drivers of greatest concern. These drivers are overrepresented in serious and fatal crashes. For all crashes, the risk is about sevenfold for drivers at 0.10 percent blood alcohol content (BAC) compared with drivers with zero alcohol, and for drivers at 0.15 percent BAC, the risk is twenty-five-fold (see Exhibit III-1). This is also the group that has been the focus of major interventions, so that there is solid evidence concerning the effectiveness of countermeasures. It should be noted that the most severe sanctions have been evaluated primarily on the basis of DUI offenders, not drivers who are U/S/R for other reasons. However, DUI offenders have proved to be some of the most intractable, so that measures effectively applied to that group are likely to be effective with other U/S/R drivers.

Based upon analyses of California data (DeYoung et al., 1997), and assuming these estimates are applicable to national data, of the 56,688 drivers in fatal crashes in 1998 (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1999), 23.7 percent were driving with S/R licenses or none (see Exhibit III-2). Of drivers considered to be at fault in crashes, the percentage increases to 35.4. If all S/R and unlicensed drivers stayed off the road, there would have been 13,435 fewer drivers in fatal crashes. On average, there is 0.732 fatality per driver in fatal crashes, suggesting that there would have been about 9,834 fewer fatalities had these drivers not been on the road. (These figures are based on a number of assumptions and should be considered no more than rough estimates at best.)
Exhibit III-1 Exhibit III-2

Specific Attributes of the Problem

As noted above, about one in five fatal crashes involves at least one driver who is not properly licensed (Griffin and DeLaZerda, 2000). In California alone, it is estimated that about a million drivers are S/R, and even more than a million are unlicensed (DeYoung, personal communication, 2000).

S/R drivers are predominantly male and younger than the average age of drivers (on average, over 8 years younger in a California study). They are also more likely to have convictions for nontraffic offenses, including violent offenses (De Young, 1990). Drivers who are S/R as a result of a DUI conviction exhibit even more deviant behavior (DeYoung, 1990). Clearly, S/R drivers have proven to be a difficult group to reach and influence.

It is more difficult to obtain valid information on unlicensed drivers. However, the analysis of FARS crashes found the average age to be much lower, about 13.5 years younger than the average age of drivers with valid licenses. According to California data, unlicensed drivers have an even higher rate of fatal crash involvement than do S/R drivers.

Lower Responsiveness to Sanctions
When unlicensed drivers are also undocumented aliens, it is not likely that traditional sanctions will keep them off the road. These drivers are often providing transportation for many other similarly undocumented aliens, and the transportation is essential for their employment. In the case of S/R drivers, traditional sanctions (warning letters, probation, license restriction) are less effective because they do not fully incapacitate the drivers (DeYoung, 1999). Something more is needed.

Although most drivers in fatal crashes hold a valid license (89 percent in 1998; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1999), those who have been drinking are much more likely to be U/S/R (Simpson and Mayhew 1991). The rates for each of these categories increase with increasing BAC. The hard-core drinking driver is a significant part of the “driving while S/R” problem. Furthermore, when fatal crash involvement is related to estimates of exposure, drivers with S/R license are greatly overrepresented. In California it was found that, compared with validly licensed drivers, S/R drivers are overinvolved in fatal crashes by a factor of 3.71, while unlicensed drivers are even more overrepresented, by a factor of 4.9:1 (DeYoung et al., 1997) (see Exhibit III-3). Furthermore, Miller et al. (1999) report that, based on estimates of exposure compared with crash involvement, the cost per kilometer driven at a BAC greater than or equal to 0.08 percent was $3.40 compared with $0.07 per sober kilometer driven (see Exhibit III-4). Thus, driving at 0.08 percent BAC costs society nearly 50 times as much as driving sober (see also Miller et al., 1998).
Exhibit III-3 Exhibit III-4

Analyses of FARS data show alcohol involvement to be much higher among drivers without valid license (see Exhibit III-5). These data are based on only those drivers for whom the investigating officer made a definite judgment (based on data from Griffin and DeLaZerda, 2000).

Multiple-DUI offenders have failed to respond to more conventional sanctions or to efforts to “rehabilitate” them, so the focus moves from changing the individual’s behavior to modifying the environment so as to make it more difficult for the offender to operate a vehicle.

Despite the marked over-involvement of improperly licensed drivers in fatal crashes, traffic violations are often not treated seriously in the court system, where prosecutors and others consider burglaries, assaults, and other crimes of greater importance (even though people are at much greater risk of a crash injury than of being the victim of a crime). The use of separate traffic courts that handle only traffic offenses will increase the likelihood of appropriate sanctions.
Exhibit III-5

Ineffectiveness of Traditional Sanctions
Measures traditionally employed to make it more difficult for U/S/R drivers to obtain or retain a license are ineffective and may even be counterproductive. Because of the costs of reinstating licensure, including the cost of vehicle insurance after a conviction for DUI, many drivers choose to remain unlicensed but continue to drive. In California, there are about 1 million S/R drivers in the state at any given time and an additional estimated 1 million who are unlicensed (DeYoung, 1999, p. 46). When drivers are suspended or revoked, they are on the record system, and at least some level of control may be exerted over them. However, unlicensed drivers are more difficult to monitor, so that simply threatening to remove licensure for longer and longer periods of time does not solve the problem of hardcore offenders. Neither does education, jail sentences, or treatment programs. Something more is required.