Police Cracking Down on Unlicensed Drivers

ByGreg Hunter and Joy Kalfopulos via via logo

L O N G  B E A C H, Calif., Nov. 15, 2003 -- Though Robert Aragon pleaded not guilty to driving without a license, a judge still forbade him from driving his car.

But when an ABCNEWS hidden camera followed Aragon leaving the Long Beach, Calif., courtroom, he wasn't walking home or catching a bus. He was walking to his car three blocks away. The hidden camera caught him pulling out of his parking space.

Of the roughly 40,000 fatal car crashes each year, 20 percent involve a driver without a valid driver's license, according to a study conducted for the American Automobile Association (AAA).

That's about 8,000 drivers who should not have been on the road involved in fatal crashes, and police are taking measures to bring that number down.

Stung, on Camera

In Aragon's case, ABCNEWS wasn't alone in following him. Long Beach Police pulled him over as part of a sting operation.

"Sir, what was I being pulled over for?" Aragon asked.

"Driving with a suspended license," the officer said.

"Well, how did you know that?" Aragon said.

"We had people following you," the policeman answered.

According to police, such sting operations are one of the effective ways to keep unlicensed drivers off the streets — something they are determined to do because of the potential consequences.

"Unlicensed drivers cause more damage than, and take more lives than, any classification of driver," Long Beach Police Sgt. David Cannan said.

‘It Can’t Be, It Can’t Be’

William Yates, known by family and friends as Tony, was riding with his son Jeff in Pompano Beach, Fla., when he was fatally struck by the SUV driven by Timothy Bacon, who was operating with a suspended license.

"What's the worst thing somebody can tell you?" Jeff Yates said. "Your dad just died in a car accident that you two were in. It was horrible and the next worst thing is you have to tell your mom."

"You don't believe it," said Jane Yates, Tony's widow. "It just can't happen like this. You say, 'It can't be. It can't be.' "

Tony Yates was the patriarch of a large, close-knit family — father of four, grandfather of five.

"First we experienced the loss of our father through a horrible accident and we thought that was bad enough," said Tony's son Jason Yates. "Then you have to find out that person driving the car had a suspended license."

"I think what it is, is that they are worse drivers than everyone else," said Dr. Robert Scopatz, the co-author of the AAA study.

‘Trying to Send the Message’

Sting operations are just one way of keeping unlicensed drivers off the street. According to a recent study in California, impounding the car of an unlicensed driver keeps up to 30 percent of these violators off the street.

"We're trying to send the message out there," Cannan said. "We're trying to make it safer for everybody. And if we can take that car away from them for 30 days and let them think about it [we will]. … If they don't get their license within 30 days, we keep the car."

According to the AAA, car impoundment is a strong deterrent. And in California, there is a $1,000 fee to get your car back. AAA also suggests that when police pull over a driver without a license, they might simply take the license plates right off the car, and make the driver pay to have the car towed, reducing the chances they'll be able to drive again.

If several people in a family drive a car that might be used by a suspended driver, some areas have special license plates that give police a green light to pull the car over and make sure the person with the revoked license isn't at the wheel.

In Florida, Timothy Bacon, the man accused in the vehicular manslaughter of Tony Yates, pleaded not guilty and is behind bars awaiting trial. But for the Yates family, that's not enough to ease the pain of losing their beloved patriarch.

"Tony would be here today if that person were not driving," Jane Yates said.

ABCNEWS' Allen Levine contributed to this report.

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