LOS ANGELES -- Unlicensed drivers are almost three times more likely to cause a fatal car crash than licensed drivers, reveals a report by the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
The report, released in December, analyzed collision data from 1987 to 2009. The DMV determined that unlicensed drivers are more likely to be at fault in fatal collisions and that people aged 20 to 29 make up the largest percentage of unlicensed drivers involved in two-vehicle fatal crashes.
The Los Angeles Times, which first reported on the study Wednesday, wrote that the DMV findings add "fuel to the debate over whether illegal immigrants should be eligible for licenses."
But people shouldn't automatically associate unlicensed drivers with undocumented immigrants, said Jorge Mario-Cabrera, spokesman for immigrant advocacy group CHIRLA.
"This report paints a partial picture of who the unlicensed drivers in California are," Mario-Cabrera told The Huffington Post in a phone interview. "Not all undocumented immigrants in California are driving on roads without a license."
Indeed, the DMV report makes no mention of immigrants, undocumented or otherwise. The study is simply a look at drivers who don't have valid California licenses.
The Times also said the DMV report's findings suggest that passing a written exam and driving test -- what the newspaper called "modest requirements" to get a driver's license -- may improve road safety and reduce the number of fatal crashes.
Not so, said DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez. The report focuses on "unlicensed drivers," explained Gonzalez. That group includes anyone from undocumented immigrants to the state's worst drivers -- people who have had their licenses revoked or suspended because of DUIs, traffic violations or missed fee payments. Much more than a simple written and practical test separates bad drivers from their licenses.
"They could be undocumented," said Gonzalez. "But they could also be people from another state that don't have a California driver's license. They could be people who never got a license."
The DMV did analyze both "suspended/revoked" and "unlicensed" drivers. The conclusion for both groups was that "those who drive without a valid license are nearly three times more likely to cause a fatal crash relative to their exposure." The Times story makes no mention of the "suspended/revoked" category.
Bottom line? "We don't know the actual number of unlicensed drivers," said Gonzalez, or the reasons why they are unlicensed. All the DMV can do is create an "x file" -- a placeholder record that notes each time a driver is stopped without a valid license and the reason for the stop. The department tries to match the x-file records with a person in the event the person does try to obtain a license.
The Times later added a "for the record" note on its website, saying the story "incorrectly attributed to a Department of Motor Vehicles study the statement that the vast majority of those drivers are illegal immigrants. While true, according to the office of Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), the fact was not included in the study." A spokesman for the newspaper wasn't immediately available for comment.
It's unclear how Assemblyman Alejo knows the majority of unlicensed drivers are undocumented immigrants. A request for comment from the assemblyman's office was not immediately returned.
Mario-Cabrera said the DMV report highlights the need for California to make the driver's license application process more widely available, even though he disclaimed the assumption that unlicensed drivers and undocumented immigrants are the same.
"The report underscores the need for Sacramento to come to their senses and grant licenses to undocumented immigrants," Mario-Cabrera said. "We've always argued that our highways would be safer if in fact we had more immigrants, documented or not, be able to go through the regular procedure the rest of us go through. I don't see why we just don't do it."
The DMV recommends only one policy change to improve the unlicensed driver problem: vehicle impoundment. Ironically, the Los Angeles Police Department curtailed this tactic in early 2012 over concerns that it unfairly burdened undocumented immigrants.
"We had heard [about the LAPD's decision], but we can't really force anyone to do anything," said Gonzalez.
UPDATE Jan. 17, 2013: California Assemblymember Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) says that the DMV's report on unlicensed drivers demonstrates the need for the state legislature to pass AB 60, the Safe and Responsible Driver Act.
Proposed by Assemblymember Alejo, it would allow people that pay federal taxes to apply for a California driver's license. In a statement sent to HuffPost, Assemblymember Alejo said he was proud this bill carries on the work of former Senator Gil Cedillo, who campaigned for years to give undocumented immigrants the right to apply for a driver's license.
“AB 60 is a common sense bill. Having uninsured drivers is a hazard for everyone and the recent DMV report proves that point,” says Alejo in the statement. “The Safe and Responsible Driver Act improves safety on our roadways because it will ensure that immigrants that pay taxes will be eligible for a driver’s license with insurance requirements.”