Letting Undocumented Drivers Get Licenses Makes L.A. Safer

Los Angeles' hit-and-run crisis — at one point they occurred here at four times the rate of the United States as a whole — has roots deep in the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson.

In 1993, Wilson, who would go on to run for re-election based on the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, signed SB 976, which required a Social Security number and proof that one's presence in the United States "is authorized under federal law" in order to get a driver's license.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of immigrants arriving in the Golden State were unable to legally drive, inspiring some to leave the scene of accidents. Others had their vehicles seized by police. And the unauthorized newcomers got no driver training and took no driving tests. In 2012, the Weekly declared that Los Angeles was the epicenter of a "bloody hit-and-run epidemic," and legislation to address the problem followed.

A new Stanford study concludes that the return of driver's licenses for the undocumented in 2015 under legislation by then-Assemblyman Luis A. Alejo reduced hit-and-runs statewide as by as much as 10 percent — 4,000 fewer collisions — in its first year. "Although AB 60 had no effect on the rate of fatal accidents, it did decrease the rate of hit-and-run accidents, suggesting that the policy reduced fears of deportation and vehicle impoundment," according to a summary.

The research was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jens Hainmueller, co-director of the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab, said in a Stanford publication, "We were immediately shocked by the absence of facts in this debate. Nobody was drawing on any evidence; it was more characterized by ideology. There was no real evidence of the likely consequences."

More than 830,000 people in the United States illegally have applied for licenses since 2015. The study found that the reduction in hit-and-runs saved Californians $3.5 million in damage.

When he was in the state Legislature in the late 1990s and into the '00s, City Councilman Gil Cedillo pioneered the effort to return to the pre-Wilson days of driver's licenses for the undocumented. Safety was chief among his concerns. But so was justice. Many of his Eastside constituents were getting their cars impounded at police DUI checkpoints because they were driving without a license. For many, a car was the most valuable thing they owned and the thing that enabled them to work.

AB 60 was a legacy of Cedillo's own legislation, under the same number. The politician was so adamant about licenses for the undocumented he earned the nickname "One Bill Gil."

"The Stanford study validates what we intended to do with the passage of AB 60, improve public safety, especially reducing the number of hit-and-run accidents," Cedillo told the Weekly via email.

"When you take the politics out of the equation, this bill is about getting motorists (regardless of immigration status) tested, insured and licensed," he continued. "Our coalition was broad, bringing together law enforcement with immigrant advocacy groups, labor groups with the business community, and farmworkers with their agricultural employers. All understood the importance of the issues at hand."

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