W A S H I N G T O N, July 13, 2000 -- One in every five fatal car crashes in theUnited States each year involves a driver who does not have a validlicense or whose license status is a mystery to law enforcement,according to a study released Wednesday.
The report, “Unlicensed to Kill,” sponsored by the AAAFoundation for Traffic Safety, said that 8,400 people die onaverage each year in crashes with unlicensed drivers. It also foundthat 28 percent of the lawbreaking drivers had received three ormore license suspensions or revocations in the three years beforetheir fatal collision.
“It’s like a revolving door. These people are being suspendedand suspended and suspended again, and still, they’re driving,”said researcher Lindsay I. Griffin of the Texas TransportationInstitute at Texas A&M University.
The researchers did not know the total number of unlicenseddrivers on U.S. roads today, but said they believe those driversare involved in an inordinate number of fatal crashes.
Griffin and colleagues studied five years of data from theDepartment of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System,1993 through 1997. They studied 278,078 drivers involved in 183,749fatal crashes.
Among the drivers, 13.8 percent, or 38,374, had a license thatwas suspended, revoked, expired, canceled or denied; had no licenseat all; or, in some cases, were a mystery because they werehit-and-run drivers, or law enforcement officers could notdetermine their license status for other reasons.
Among the crashes, 20 percent, or 36,750, involved such adriver.
The researchers found some common characteristics among illegaldrivers 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 earlymorning hours.
Among those with a suspended license, they were about threetimes more likely to be drunk in the opinion of the investigatingofficer than properly licensed drivers. Those who had a revokedlicense were about four times more likely to be drunk.
— They were more than five times as likely to be hit-and-rundrivers than legal drivers, in cases where the drivers wereidentified.
“These are not people who just managed to slip up one time andnow they’re suspended. They seem to be more of a chronicallyaberrant group,” Griffin said.
Unlicensed drivers pose a particular problem in the West, theresearchers found, but the study could not explain the geographicdisparity. In New Mexico, nearly a quarter of all fatal accidentsinvolved illegal drivers, making it the state with the highestpercentage.
Other high-risk jurisdictions were the District of Columbia,Arizona, California and Hawaii. Maine had the lowest incidence ofdeadly crashes involving illegal drivers, 6.4 percent.
Lt. Patrick Burke, traffic coordinator for the D.C. policedepartment, said mild penalties are partly to blame.
“If I were to, let’s say, arrest a 17-year-old this afternoonwho 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 beon the street in a car an hour later,” he said.
The researchers said a California policy of impounding thevehicles of unlicensed drivers and technology being developed, suchas “smart cards” that would prevent an illegal driver from takingthe wheel, shows promise in preventing fatalities.