Goodbye, Driver's License
The O Pine

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© 2003 Brian F. Schreurs
Even we have a disclaimer.

We should always make it as easy as possible for stupid people to weed themselves out.
Drive anywhere today, and you have to wonder what driving instructors really do for a living. They certainly don't seem to be teaching anyone how to drive. A driver's license has about as much bearing on an individual's driving skills as a fishing license has on an individual's fishing skills. Of course, it's not entirely the instructors' fault; few states, if any, require drivers to re-take the licensing test until well past retirement. Someone who learned to drive shortly after World War II could still be on the road today, having never taken anything more than an eye exam along the way.

The situation is not likely to improve anytime soon. Though there is the occasional muted cry for stricter licensing standards, the only people who ever seem to suffer actual licensing reform is the non-voting teenagers -- and their reform consists largely of changing the driving age and extending the probationary period, not better instruction. Voters will never see stricter licensing, because behind all the bravado, every politician knows that stricter licensing means licenses will get revoked, and revoked licenses will result in economic hardship, and economic hardship means seriously ticked off voters, and seriously ticked off voters means no job for the politician after the next election.

So. Drivers aren't as good as they could be, there are people out there who have licenses but probably shouldn't, and we'll never fix the system because we are not willing to pay the economic cost of doing so.

Well, if a driver's license doesn't represent a certification that the licensee is competent with a car, then just what is it for exactly? If a driver's license is no more useful than a fishing license, then why are we compelled to have one? What seemed like a good idea when cars were an oddity that frightened horses has grown along with the necessity of the automobile to become a backdoor to a national identification system as well as a constant source of government revenue through law enforcement. These three tasks -- citizen identification, driver licensing, and law enforcement -- need to become separate endeavors.

If the states wish to issue identification cards for their citizens, then they ought to do just that and not tie the possession of identification with the ability to operate a machine. Most states do, in fact, offer an identification card, but these programs are underutilized because they do nothing that a driver's license doesn't do. Separating and strengthening the ID card programs offers a great opportunity to develop more robust identification, including even criminal background or biometric information that would have no place on a simple driver's license. Citizens who voluntarily carry certified identification could enjoy expediated government services (such as paying taxes or hooking up utilities) and sales on selected goods (such as firearms, vehicles, and houses). Citizens who prefer their privacy would not feel compelled to register with their state just to maintain a normal level of mobility. Voluntary but secure identification will allow the citizen to choose between convenience and privacy, and will allow the state to focus its identification cards on one task: certain and effective identification.

With identification properly handled through its own system, the driver's license is free to focus on the single task of licensing drivers. The first step in driver's license reform will be to eliminate the notion that licenses are mandatory for adults. Currently, any good that could be accomplished to improve road safety is hindered by the elephant standing in the way: losing a driver's license is certain to result in lost jobs and hardship for millions of Americans. Because politicians are unwilling to put their constituents in the unemployment line -- assuming they could even get to the line without a license -- any reform that would cost people their licenses, such as tough tests or strict points, will never make significant headway. The secret to opening the floodgates of road reform is to accept that personal mobility is in fact a right, not a privilege. The consequences of abusing this right can then be treated just like any other criminal act, rather than using the ponderous administrative system of slowly revoking a "privilege".

With licensing optional, the state can mandate much stricter requirements without worry over the hardship bogey. Prospective licensees can expect to take a proper high-performance defensive driving course, and retake the course every five years, using their own car. Those licensed will enjoy lower insurance rates, discounted registration fees, and simplified processing at traffic stops and accident scenes. Drivers under age 18 can expect such courses to be mandatory, as they are not yet adults. These incentives will encourage many drivers to take the advanced driving courses, increasing the number of skilled drivers on the road. Those who wish to avoid licensing and continue driving as poorly as they do now will still be out there, but the burden of risk will be higher on them, as it should be.

Disconnecting law enforcement from licensing, by acknowledging personal mobility as a right, frees the justice system to pursue lousy drivers more aggressively. Both police officers and traffic court judges are sensitive to the dire economic consequences that come from losing the ability to drive, and this very often results in reduced penalties for poor driving so as to spare the license. Only those who have established themselves as reckless repeat offenders face the full brunt of the law. Under the optional-licensing system, a judge could revoke a license, and all the privileges that come with it, without fear that the driver will lose his job. A revoked license would be a major wake-up call rather than a life-ruining event. Similarly, judges could impose higher fines and community service to both licensed and unlicensed drivers, and police officers would find little to compel them to "knock down" a violation. With enforcement focused on stopping infractions at the incident level rather than using infractions as part of a long-term administrative process, drivers will be forced to consider the consequences of their immediate actions rather than using their license as a credit card with an annual points allocation.

Those individuals who prove themselves incapable of being trusted with an automobile will no longer face a simple revoked license. With the proper felony conviction, they will be forbidden from owning a vehicle at all, just as a proper felony conviction forbids individuals from owning a firearm under current law. This will make it much harder for banned drivers to get behind the wheel again, as they will not have easy access to a car, and the consequences of getting caught will be much higher (presumably, they have either stolen the car or bought it fraudulently).

Though it may seem counterintuitive at first, saying goodbye to the driver's license as we know it will improve citizen identification, support privacy rights, and still make the roads safer. Both the government and the citizens benefit from this plan. It is a move we must make for the improvement of the nation's infrastructure.