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THE EXPERIENCE IN THE U.S.: Murky Picture Emerges From 2 States' Efforts

Oct 22, 2007

By Joie Tyrrell, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

Oct. 23--In the two states that have made drivers' licenses more readily available to undocumented immigrants, as Gov. Eliot Spitzer has proposed for New York, the numbers of uninsured drivers have dropped sharply, but the results are mixed when it comes to safer roadways.

While the governor has emphasized that drivers statewide would save $120 million under his plan, actual savings from the highly debated policy change would be modest for most New York drivers, with reductions of $10 to $20 a year on average annual premiums of $1,000, according to data from the New York State Insurance Department.

"Ten dollars to $20 is not enough to justify [the change]," said state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), a fervent critic of Spitzer's plan. "There are about 100 other unanswered questions associated with this."

Unclear link

While Spitzer has said that his change will make roads safer, experts caution it is difficult to tell if the decline in fatal accident rates in Utah or the decrease in uninsured motorists in both Utah and New Mexico -- the two states that recently made Social Security numbers optional when applying for a driver's license -- are directly linked to the licensing regulations.

Still, New Mexico went from having one of the worst rates for uninsured motorists in the country, at 33 percent of all its drivers in 2003, to a rate of 11 percent, which falls below the national average of 14 percent, according to officials there. New York stands at 7 percent, the fourth lowest in the nation.

"The government was looking at ways to reduce the uninsured drivers' rate, we don't have proof that the change impacted that . . . but it certainly is one of the factors," said David Harwell, public information officer for the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department, which includes the state's motor vehicle division.

But Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, a trade group outside Denver, said it is hard to say. "I don't know that we can speculate having more drivers licensed . . . would automatically lower insurance rates, there are so many other factors in play when you are talking insurance," she said.

Since New Mexico made the change in 2003, the crash fatality rate has increased from 34.87 per 100,000 drivers in 2000 to 37.4 in 2005, according to statistics from the Fatal Accident Reporting System, part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

An incomplete picture

To support its argument, Spitzer's office cites a AAA Foundation report in 2000 that found unlicensed drivers are almost five times more likely to be in a fatal crash than are licensed drivers. The report, however, only addresses trends about licensed and unlicensed drivers and makes no mention of their immigration status.

"We are confident this policy change will improve the safety and security of our roads," said Jennifer Givner in a statement from the governor's office.

Spitzer's plan would change a policy in effect since after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Gov. George Pataki tightened restrictions that limited immigrants' access to drivers' licenses. The fatality rate since that change has improved, going from 13.4 per 100,000 drivers in 2000 to 12.9 in 2005. The rate of uninsured drivers remained the same before and after the policy switch -- as it has since at least the 1990s -- at about 7 percent.

The results have been different in Utah. After 1999, when the state made Social Security numbers optional for people applying for licenses, the number of uninsured motorists dropped from 28 percent to under 6 percent. The fatality rate per 100,000 licensed drivers dropped from 25.49 in 2000 to 17.63 in 2005.

Premium benefits

Brad Tibbitts, director of life and property casualty for the Utah insurance department, said Utah has among the lowest auto premiums in the country and that the lower number of uninsured motorists may have something to do with it.

"The companies don't have to pay on the underinsured and uninsured as much," he said. "They don't have to pay as much as they would if these type of drivers were a lot more prevalent in the state."

But both Utah and New Mexico have been tightening restrictions on licenses. Utah recently amended its regulation and now issues "driving privilege cards" for applicants without a Social Security number, which permits them to drive but is not valid for identification. And New Mexico officials recently enlisted the Mexican government to help the state check the identities of would-be drivers.

"Leaving aside the insurance question, in Utah, they clearly delineate and distinguish," Flanagan said. "They have a two-tiered system." He added that that was not even an option presented here.

Six other states -- Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon and Washington -- do not require Social Security numbers for drivers' licenses and have not recently altered that regulation.

In those six states, the picture is mixed regarding uninsured motorists, according to 2004 statistics from the Insurance Research Council, a trade group near Philadelphia. Four fall below the national average of 15 percent, with Maine the lowest in the nation at 4 percent. Next is Maryland at 12 percent, Oregon at 12 percent and Hawaii at 13 percent. Two rank above the national average, with Michigan at 17 percent and Washington at 18 percent.

In 2005, all six were in the bottom half of fatality crash rates nationwide per 100,000 population.

Modest, but real, savings

As Spitzer has promoted his plan, he has stressed how much money drivers will save on their insurance premiums. However, drivers would save only on the portion of their premium that is devoted to covering uninsured motorists. For a $1,000 annual premium, that portion is estimated at $40.

So, a 34-percent drop in that portion -- as emphasized by Spitzer's administration -- equates to just $10 to $20.

For individual policyholders, the savings will likely be 1 to 2 percent off their total annual premiums, said Hampton Finer, chief economist with the state Insurance Department.

Said Finer: "It is still real money and a clear benefit to the [governor's] policy."

Conducting everyday business

Besides allowing people to drive legally, drivers' licenses can help people:

Write or cash checks.

Provide ID at an airport.

Show proof of age to enter a bar or buy alcohol or cigarettes.

Provide ID to pick up mail at a post office.

Get car insurance.

Register a car with the DMV.

Open bank accounts.

Rent vehicles.

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Copyright (c) 2007, Newsday, Melville, N.Y.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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