Welcome to San Francisco, DMV Licenses Optional

In 2009, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom announced a city policy that directed police not to impound the cars of unlicensed drivers if those drivers could find a licensed friend to drive away their car. The idea, then-police chief (now District Attorney) George Gascon told me at the time, was to help those who could not get a valid California driver’s license because of their immigration status, as well as legal residents who could not afford to get a license or driver training.

City Hall’s message was clear: San Francisco loves undocumented drivers.

It was a hare-brained scheme, given unlicensed drivers’ dangerous tendency to be involved in fatal crashes and hit-and-run accidents. It looked worse than ill-conceived in 2010, after an unlicensed driver made a left turn into motorcyclist Drew Rosenberg during rush-hour traffic, then backed over the law student, killing him.

In 2012, the state Department of Motor Vehicles released a report that found unlicensed drivers are nearly three times more likely to cause a fatal crash in California than licensed drivers.

No data will get in the way of City Hall’s political correctness. During a Wednesday meeting with The Chronicle editorial board, Gascon said that the city’s no-impound policy is “a good policy” that promotes public safety by reducing police pursuits.

What about the DMV study?

Gascon told me that he saw no reason to act on the DMV research because it did not disaggregate numbers by age — information he had requested from the DMV, but was still awaiting. Actually, the study did divvy up unlicensed drivers into 10-year-age bands. When I called the DMV to find out how many unlicensed drivers involved in fatal crashes were too young to have a license, the agency informed me that 31 of the 1,194 unlicensed drivers involved in the fatal crashes reviewed were under 16. That tells me the D.A. didn’t want the numbers as much as I did, perhaps because the raw data do not bolster his case.

So the DMV report nails the case against unlicensed drivers, as well as those with revoked or suspended licenses. No surprise there, because other research has come to the same conclusion. Also, researchers promote a strong remedy — impounding cars. An earlier DMV study found that unlicensed drivers who had their cars impounded had significantly fewer subsequent crashes than unlicensed drivers whose cars were not impounded.

That doesn’t surprise Drew Rosenberg’s father, Don, who observed that the more authorities protect bad behavior, the less incentive unlicensed drivers have to obey the law.

I’ve never understood why a district attorney would encourage unlicensed driving and support a policy that calls for police to allow a driver with a revoked license to keep his car. You can flunk a driver’s test, drive in San Francisco without a license and, even if caught, get a licensed friend to drive your car away.

Gascon told The Chronicle that illegal immigrants need cars to get to work or take their kids to school. What about public transportation? He answered it’s not always the answer.

Actually for Gascon, it’s never the answer.

Asked if he wanted to change the no-impound policy, given the research he chose not to acknowledge, Gascon essentially suggested that if California changes its law requiring that driver’s license applicants be legal residents, then maybe he’ll look at the impound policy. In the meantime, law-abiding drivers can consider themselves hostages.

Unless and until Sacramento votes to allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses, the streets of San Francisco will be less safe for everyone, immigrant and native-born.

Email Debra J. Saunders at: [email protected].

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