A California law that allows undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses reduced the number of hit-and-run accidents statewide by about 7 percent in its first year of implementation, according to a Stanford University study released Monday.
The study is the first to explore the initial effects of Assembly bill AB 60 since it took effect in January 2015. Hit-and-run accidents in California decreased by an estimated 4,000 in 2015 alone, saving drivers who were not at fault in crashes an estimated $3.5 million in out-of-pocket repair costs, according to the report. It also noted that because hit-and-runs can often result in injured people being left at the scene of accidents without getting immediate medical attention, AB 60 has no doubt improved public safety and saved lives.
Because the law prohibits law enforcement officers from reporting AB 60 drivers to immigration officials, the study said, “unauthorized immigrants with a valid form of in-state driving authorization have weaker incentives to flee the scene after an accident because they are less likely to fear deportation.”
The study was done by Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab, a social science research lab that evaluates immigration and assimilation policy in the U.S. and Europe. It highlights a controversial topic that has sparked widespread debate for years.
Immigration advocates have argued that many undocumented immigrants, like most Californians, rely heavily on their cars to go to work. So losing their vehicles to impoundment, which resulted because they weren’t licensed or insured, cost hundreds of dollars and jeopardized their employment — which gave them an incentive to flee accidents, the advocates say.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses if they can provide proof of state residency and pass standard written exams and road tests.
Gina Gates and her ex-husband lead free local workshops that prepare immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses under AB 60. As many as 100 people attend the workshop at times, and an estimated 2,000 undocumented immigrants have completed the program since it started two years ago, according to the 58-year-old San Jose resident.
Gates, who is Mexican-American, said the report’s findings aren’t surprising to her because they reflect the freewheeling discussions among undocumented immigrants in class.
Critics of the law, however, contend that it grants undocumented immigrants a privilege they don’t deserve and makes it easier for them to skirt federal laws aimed at preventing undocumented immigrants from being gainfully employed. Before AB 60 was passed, critics warned that it also could increase the number of traffic accidents because undocumented immigrants — who tend to drive older cars and may not understand road signs in English — would drive more frequently and for longer distances.
But the Stanford study concluded that the overall number of accidents and traffic fatalities were unaffected during the first year.
More than 600,000 undocumented immigrants in California obtained driver’s licenses under AB 60 in its first year of implementation. The Department of Motor Vehicles has since issued an additional 250,000 licenses, according to spokesman Artemio Armenta.
AB 60 licenses are marked with the term “federal limits apply,” meaning that they cannot be used by immigrants as federal identification — for example, getting through airport security.
The authors of the report — Stanford political scientists Jens Hainmueller and Hans Lueders, along with Duncan Lawrence, executive director of the Immigration Policy Lab — say they wanted to provide concrete research on the effects of the law.
“When individuals are able to drive to work and take their kids to school and are able to drive legally, the community as a whole benefits,” Lawrence said. “Not only are people safer, but there are cost savings associated with that.”
The three researchers studied the number of active driver’s licenses in California between January 2006 and December 2015. With the DMV data, they estimated the number of AB 60 licenses in each county by comparing the total number of driver’s licenses before and after implementation of the law.
Monthly data on accidents reported by the California Highway Patrol’s statewide traffic record system was used to measure the effects of AB 60 on traffic safety.
The report found that hit-and-runs decreased about 10 percent in counties that have a large number of AB 60 drivers, among them Santa Cruz, Monterey, Napa and Fresno counties. In general, the higher the share of AB 60 drivers in a particular county, the more hit-and-runs decreased, Hainmueller said.
Joe Guzzardi, spokesman for the grass-roots group Californians for Population Stabilization, said he’s still not convinced the law was a good idea.
“If hit-and-run driving crimes are down because licensed illegal immigrants are more willing to report their accidents, California is better for it,” he said. “But when AB 60 was working its way through the Legislature, Californians for Population Stabilization opposed it because, among other reasons, it would make it easier for illegal immigrants to get jobs that should go to unemployed or underemployed citizens and legal immigrants.”
The law is “another entitlement for people that are in California illegally,” Guzzardi said “It’s an incentive for more illegal immigration.”