California Roads Got Safer When Undocumented Immigrants Got Driver's Licenses

The number of hit-and-runs actually dropped, a new study found.

SAN FRANCISCO ― Fewer hit-and-run accidents plagued California after the state began issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants two years ago, according to a new study.

Stanford University researchers found an estimated 4,000 fewer hit-and-runs in 2015, the first year the licensing program went into effect. That’s a 7 percent drop, even though some 600,000 immigrant drivers obtained licenses under the AB60 law that year.

Overall, the number of auto accidents and fatalities in California remained stable from 2014 to 2015, the Stanford report said. The study was published Monday in PNAS, the National Academy of Sciences journal.

The results may reassure some critics of the AB60 law, who had feared the number of crashes would rise with hundreds of thousands of newly licensed drivers. It was widely thought that many of those undocumented immigrants already drove without a license.

“We’re seeing attacks on immigrants at the federal level, but here in California we’ve been passing laws that integrate immigrants,” said Luis Alejo, a Monterey County supervisor and former state assemblyman who introduced the AB60 bill in 2013. “We’re seeing the benefits of that.”

There are a few possible explanations for the drop in hit-and-runs, the researchers said. Immigrant drivers might flee the scenes of accidents less often because with a license, they’re less worried about interacting with police. Supporters of the law had also predicted that some immigrants would drive more safely because they’d studied for a road test to get the license.

Fewer hit-and-runs offer other public benefits. Injured victims may receive life-saving medical treatment more quickly if drivers call 911 rather than speeding off to protect themselves, researchers said.

Auto insurance costs may also drop as innocent drivers are no longer on the hook for damages caused by others. The Stanford researchers calculated that California drivers saved roughly $3.5 million in out-of-pocket expenses for property damage in 2015 due to AB60.

The licensing law ― which applies to immigrants who lack federal legal status but can demonstrate California residency ― may have led to a “modest” drop in the number of uninsured drivers in 2015, state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones announced last year. His office said that over 200,000 vehicles more than expected were insured the year the licensing program took effect.

“The big takeaway of our study is that when people can drive to work and take their kids to school legally, everyone is safer, and when hit-and-run accidents decline, all drivers are better off,” Stanford political science professor Jens Hainmueller told SFGate.

For the study, the researchers estimated the number of AB60 drivers, county by county, by looking at the increase in driver’s licenses after the law was implemented. They found that several counties with larger numbers of AB60 drivers ― Santa Cruz, Monterey, Napa and Fresno ― saw at least 10 percent fewer hit-and-runs in 2015, according to The Mercury News.

Critics of such licensing initiatives argue that it’s wrong to let people have a driver’s license if they’ve entered or remained in U.S. while sidestepping the legal immigration process. Still, 11 other states and the District of Columbia have similar laws making licenses available to drivers who lack legal status.

Since 2015, another 250,000 additional drivers in California have obtained their licenses through the AB60 program, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The department said it is “committed to implement [AB60] to increase safety on California’s roads by putting licensed drivers behind the steering wheel.”