One in every five fatal car crashes in the United States each year involves a driver who does not have a valid license or whose license status is a mystery to law enforcement, according to a study released Wednesday.
The report, “Unlicensed to Kill,” sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said that 8,400 people die on average each year in crashes with unlicensed drivers. It also found that 28 percent of the lawbreaking drivers had received three or more license suspensions or revocations in the three years before their fatal collision.
“It’s like a revolving door. These people are being suspended and suspended and suspended again, and still, they’re driving,” said researcher Lindsay I. Griffin of the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.
The researchers did not know the total number of unlicensed drivers on U.S. roads today, but said they believe those drivers are involved in an inordinate number of fatal crashes.
Griffin and colleagues studied five years of data from the Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, 1993 through 1997. They studied 278,078 drivers involved in 183,749 fatal crashes.
Among the drivers, 13.8 percent, or 38,374, had a license that was suspended, revoked, expired, canceled or denied; had no license at all; or, in some cases, were a mystery because they were hit-and-run drivers, or law enforcement officers could not determine their license status for other reasons.
Among the crashes, 20 percent, or 36,750, involved such a driver.
The researchers found some common characteristics among illegal drivers in fatal crashes:
— One-third were younger than 20.
— They were more likely to be male.
— They were more likely to drive during late night or early morning hours.
Among those with a suspended license, they were about three times more likely to be drunk in the opinion of the investigating officer than properly licensed drivers. Those who had a revoked license were about four times more likely to be drunk.
— They were more than five times as likely to be hit-and-run drivers than legal drivers, in cases where the drivers were identified.
“These are not people who just managed to slip up one time and now they’re suspended. They seem to be more of a chronically aberrant group,” Griffin said.
Unlicensed drivers pose a particular problem in the West, the researchers found, but the study could not explain the geographic disparity. In New Mexico, nearly a quarter of all fatal accidents involved illegal drivers, making it the state with the highest percentage.
Other high-risk jurisdictions were the District of Columbia, Arizona, California and Hawaii. Maine had the lowest incidence of deadly crashes involving illegal drivers, 6.4 percent.
Lt. Patrick Burke, traffic coordinator for the D.C. police department, said mild penalties are partly to blame.
“If I were to, let’s say, arrest a 17-year-old this afternoon who doesn’t have a driver’s permit, never had a driver’s permit, that 17-year-old could pay $75 at the local police station and be on the street in a car an hour later,” he said.
The researchers said a California policy of impounding the vehicles of unlicensed drivers and technology being developed, such as “smart cards” that would prevent an illegal driver from taking the wheel, shows promise in preventing fatalities.