By Debra J. Saunders
Unlicensed drivers are nearly three times likelier than licensed drivers to cause a fatal crash in California. Indeed, unlicensed drivers are likelier to cause fatal crashes than drivers who have had their licenses suspended or revoked. So found a new study released by the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
The study recommended “the use of countermeasures, including vehicle impoundment,” to save lives.
That’s a problem for San Francisco. In 2009, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom said police would allow unlicensed drivers to avoid a 30-day impound if they could find someone with a license to drive away their car in 20 minutes.
Then-police Chief (current District Attorney) George Gascon told the San Francisco Chronicle the city wanted to be sensitive to those who “can’t get a driver’s license because of their immigration status.” He later told me that the city also wanted to accommodate others who could not afford driver training — that is, people who might or might not know how to drive safely.
That policy seemed reckless and wrong to me. As the Los Angeles Police Protective League blogged in opposition to a similar LA policy, “there are two fundamental reasons … vehicle impounding of unlicensed drivers is smart law enforcement. First, an unlicensed driver willing to ignore the law is, at least temporarily, less likely to further violate this law because he or she will not have access to the impounded vehicle. Second, the cost and inconvenience of recovering an impounded vehicle discourages people without licenses from driving. That is precisely why the state (Legislature) enacted the 30-day hold law.”
Don Rosenberg blames San Francisco’s lax attitude for his son Drew’s death. In November 2010, an unlicensed driver made a left turn and hit Drew and his motorcycle. Drew Rosenberg died after Roberto Galo backed up over his body.
Five months earlier, San Francisco police had stopped Galo for driving the wrong way on a one-way street and driving without a license. The city impounded Galo’s car but released it to a licensed driver the next day. Galo was driving that car in the fatal crash.
“In no circumstance does the Police Department allow either a person without a driver’s license or a person with a suspended license to maintain control of a vehicle,” Chief Greg Suhr told me. Technically true, but City Hall policy invites them to get their cars back.
Advocates for illegal immigration have argued that the answer is to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Would that make a difference? Galo was a legal immigrant. He could have obtained a license, but he didn’t. (The study noted that the “over-involvement rate” of unlicensed drivers didn’t change after a 1994 state law required documentation of legal status; the rate should have fallen if safe drivers were denied licenses.)
“Everybody has to obey the rules of the road,” Rosenberg said — unless you’re an unlicensed driver in San Francisco.
City government goes out of its way to get people out of their cars. Parking is scarce and pricey. Good San Franciscans are urged to take public transit — unless they’re unlicensed and nearly three times as likely to kill someone in a car crash. Then City Hall wants them to have a car.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is email@example.com