Esther Cepeda: Driving to distraction

Esther Cepeda

Illinois again finds itself at the center of the controversy over immigration. Gov. Pat Quinn has said he will be signing into law a bill that provides driver's licenses to illegal immigrants -- to bolster road safety.


The appeal that won the day noted the current law, which requires an applicant to present a Social Security number, keeps 250,000 people from getting licensed and therefore leaves them untrained and uninsured if they proceed to drive illegally.

According to the Illinois Highway Safety Coalition, the lobbying group to which this legislative victory is owed, unlicensed and uninsured drivers in Illinois are involved in 79,600 accidents each year, costing $660 million dollars in damages. 

What the coalition doesn't say, however, is that no one can determine how many non-legal residents who drive without permission are involved in accidents.

In reality, the state's universe of unlicensed drivers goes far beyond those without green cards to include those whose licenses were suspended, revoked, expired or canceled, as well as drivers who never applied for a license.

Licensed drivers don't exactly put fears to rest, either. The Insurance Research Council estimates that 15 percent of the state's 8 million licensed drivers are uninsured -- that's 1.2 million licensed but uninsured drivers. 

And about that insurance. Another premise in the safety argument is that once a previously ineligible driver obtains this license -- it is called a "temporary visitor's license" that is not designed to be used as proof of the holder's identity -- the next step is to get liability auto insurance, as required by law. 

Well, based on the statistics I've cited, there's clearly no mechanism for making sure that any driver gets insurance. And there's no evidence, from either industry groups or other authoritative sources, that giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrant drivers increases rates of insured drivers. 

Look at New Mexico. In 2003, the state began allowing non-citizens to obtain driver's licenses with the hope that it would reduce the high number of uninsured drivers.

No dice.

According to the Insurance Research Council, 26.3 percent of New Mexico drivers were uninsured in 2000. By 2008, this number had gone up to 29.5 percent and the border state won the distinction of being No. 1 in the nation for uninsured drivers.

Oh, and people started flocking there to fraudulently obtain licenses.

And about fraudulent documents in Illinois. Just to show you how far the lobbying progressed, back in 2007, the proposed bill called for submitting fingerprints to the State Police so they could check for any previous driving records and outstanding warrants. And, the immigrants would have been required to turn in all false licenses and state IDs.

This time, the turn-in provision wasn't included. And, though debated, the proposed fingerprinting requirement was dropped because it was deemed to be too costly and could potentially keep some people from applying out of fear that their fingerprints could wind up in the hands of federal authorities.

Instead, the requirements are pretty lax: Applicants would have to prove that they've lived in Illinois for at least a year by providing copies of a lease, utility bills and such.

Call me a cynic, but as the resident of a town that has repeatedly made national headlines for its sophisticated fake-ID rings, it's difficult to imagine that counterfeit electricity bills and rental agreements aren't spitting out of laser jet printers across the state as I type this sentence. 

Let's be real -- anyone with eyes can see that though this move is cloaked in the promise of safer roads, it's really just a political move to bolster Illinois Democrats' pro-immigrant bona fides and, as a happy aside, empower the illegal immigrant population.

Hours after the legislation passed the state's House of Representatives, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who formerly was considered timid on immigration reform, was celebrating its passage while certain immigrant advocacy groups were crowing about what a "huge victory" this was and how the move adds much-needed "momentum" to an issue on and off the back burner.

I doubt it -- but who knows?

In the meantime, take it from someone who's been crashed into by a driver with no license or insurance: Don't get a false sense of security about driving in the Land of Lincoln. It's not particularly foolproof now and there's little reason to believe it'll get that way anytime soon.

Esther Cepeda's email address is

Washington Post Writers Group