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One Big Benefit of Issuing Drivers' Licenses to Undocumented Immigrants

New research finds it reduces the number of hit-and-run accidents.
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In January of 2015, a new law went into effect in California allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. The Federation for American Immigration Reform warned it would “lead to more accidents caused by uninsured motorists, and many would be hit-and-run.”

As prognosticators go, FAIR’s is a poor one. Just-published research reports that, for the first year the law was in effect, the exact opposite was true.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a trio of Stanford University political scientists estimate the new law “let to an average decrease in the rate of hit-and-run accidents between 7 and 10 percent.”

“This effect roughly translates into 4,000 fewer hit-and-run accidents occurring in California” during 2015 because of the law, report Hans Lueders, Jens Hainmueller, and Duncan Lawrence. More than 600,000 licenses were issued to undocumented immigrants that first year of its implementation.

Using monthly accident data from the California Highway Patrol, the researchers compared county-by-county accident rates, looking at 2015 figures alongside previous years’ data. They found the law “had no discernible effect” on per capital traffic accidents, or accidents that caused fatalities.

“This null finding suggests there is no empirical support for the claim that unauthorized immigrants are less-cautious drivers, or are generally more likely to cause accidents,” they write.

Interestingly, the researchers found undocumented immigrants who obtained a license were much less likely than other Californians to simultaneously register a car. This strongly suggests “they had been driving registered vehicles before the implementation” of the law.

That helps explain why there was no increase in accidents. “The majority of new license holders had sufficient driving experience,” the researchers write. “Obtaining a driver’s license did not change their routine driving behavior.”

Indeed, the only actual effect the researchers found was the large decrease in hit-and-run accidents, which suggests to them that “providing unauthorized immigrants access to driver’s licenses reduced their incentives to flee the scene of an accident.”

The law, AB-60, “explicitly prohibits law enforcement officers from reporting license holders to Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” greatly reducing fears of deportation. Having a license also eliminated another incentive to flee the scene — the fact cars driven by unlicensed drivers are routinely impounded.

According to the researchers, 12 states and the District of Columbia currently allow undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses, while several others, including New York and New Jersey, and considering the idea. Their results suggest such laws benefit not only those marginalized individuals, but society as a whole.

“Hit-and-run behaviors often delay emergency assistance, increase insurance premiums, and leave victims with significant out-of-pocket expenses,” they note. In California, at least, a simple change in the law has made that frustrating, dangerous experience less likely.