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Driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants pay off

A law giving special driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants in California did not increase the rate of total accidents or fatal accidents, according to a study of more than 800,000 such drivers. It has also helped reduce the likelihood of hit-and-runs.

The plan to grant special driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants prompted arguments that the law could damage immigration enforcement and lead to unsafe roads.

“Coming to this as scientists, we were immediately shocked by the absence of facts in this debate.”

“Coming to this as scientists, we were immediately shocked by the absence of facts in this debate. Nobody was drawing on any evidence; it was more characterized by ideology,” says Jens Hainmueller, professor in the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and co-director of the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab, which focuses on the design and evaluation of immigration and immigrant integration policies. “There was no real evidence of the likely consequences.”

For the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers narrowed in on traffic-safety outcomes because they found it was the most prominent issue when such licensing policies are discussed.

Opponents “are concerned about potential increases in accidents, or whether those accidents may encourage drivers to run away, but we didn’t find evidence of the causative effects,” says graduate fellow Hans Lueders, a PhD student in the Stanford political science department. “That’s how we determined this would be the most salient issue and the easiest to measure immediate effects, because not that much time has passed since the law was enacted.”

Report aims to debunk anti-immigration myths

The researchers combined data from two sources to estimate the short-term effects of AB60. They examined monthly data on accidents from the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System of the California Highway Patrol and that were collected between 2006 and the end of 2015. They also looked at data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles on all outstanding licenses before and after the implementation of the law to estimate the share of each county’s AB60 licenses.

The data suggest AB60 led to an average decrease in the rate of hit-and-run accidents of between 7 percent and 10 percent in 2015 over 2014. That translates to about 4,000 fewer hit-and-run accidents in California in 2015 due to AB60.

One big implication of the findings: Issuing driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants may have a significant effect in improving traffic safety.

Becoming citizens may lead immigrants to integrate

“We don’t find a negative effect at all. It suggests these policies can have positive effects on traffic safety. If drivers at an accident remain on the scene, they can be held responsible and pay for the damage,” Lueders says. “This amounts to more than $17 million attributed to the at-fault driver.”

The researchers also estimate all drivers in California saved $3.5 million in property damage costs because there were 4,000 fewer hit-and-run accidents.

“There are broad externalities on everyone in a sense,” Hainmueller says. “It’s an important takeaway for the greater debate.”

New York state is considering passing a law similar to AB60—and the governor of Minnesota is advocating for one, too. California is the 11th state to have implemented such legislation.

Given the current political climate, researchers expect to see a division of sorts happening from state to state. “Some may move toward more inclusive policies and others are moving in an exact opposite direction,” Lueders says. “I think we will see more of a polarization given the current political climate.”

Source: Mary Duan for Stanford University

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