Instapundit ask: Why have driver’s licenses at all?
Driver’s licenses began in America back in, IIRC, the 1840s when drivers of large cargo wagons in urban areas were licensed, supposedly to insure that they wouldn’t let the horses and the rig get out of control and plunge thorough crowded city streets. More likely, it was a tool to create a barrier of entry to protect established cartage companies against competition. The cry “it’s for safety” is a powerful economic tool of established concerns.
Supposedly, the government requires automobile drivers to have licenses to demonstrate that they have at least minimal driving skill and understanding of traffic laws. However, I’m not sure that is really the case anymore.
Take this recent story from here in Austin, Tx:
Travis County prosecutors have declined to criminally charge a 45-year-old woman who sped up as she tried to park her pickup, striking and killing 62-year-old Felipe Duran, who was strumming Christian songs on his guitar outside a market in February.
Instead, Juana Arrellano-Aviles, who was driving without a driver’s license or insurance, received three traffic citations.
She told police that she felt the truck move forward as she attempted to park. “At this time Juana realized she is getting close to the end of the space and where the man had his box of things,” the report says. “She stepped hard and the truck moved fast and she hit the man. Juana realized she had pressed the accelerator pedal.”
Initially, she told police that she might have been driving with both feet, but then said she drove with one.
The Austin Police Department does not inquire about immigration status as a matter of policy. Arellano-Aviles received Class C misdemeanor citations for reckless damage, failure to maintain financial responsibility and not having a driver’s license, police said. According to Austin Municipal Court documents, Arellano-Aviles has received and paid seven traffic citations since 2003, including five tickets for not having a license and one for “failure to maintain assured clear distance,” in which she paid a fine corresponding to a violation involving a collision. The most recent citation was issued in October.
Under Texas law, a person is criminally negligent when he or she “ought to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur” and that not perceiving that risk “constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise.”
Meyer said the statute means errors behind the wheel, even those resulting in death, aren’t necessarily crimes.
The death of Mr. Felipe Duran was almost certainly caused by the self-taught Ms. Arrellano-Aviles driving with her left foot resting on the brake and her right on accelerator. That is a dangerous practice precisely because it leads to stomping on the accelerator when the driver tries to break hard. Had Ms. Arrellano-Aviles been through license testing, they would not have allowed her to pass while driving with that unsafe habit and Mr. Duran’s death would have been prevented.
However, apparently under Texas law, the fact that you don’t have a valid license and have never had one is not in itself evidence of reckless behavior. If the point of the license isn’t to prevent errors like the one that killed Mr. Duran, that raises the question of whether having a license is really about safety. If it is irrelevant to legal, responsible driving that you have a license then a license itself must be irrelevant to safe driving.
The same could be said for having an uninspected vehicle. If we require inspections of vehicles in the name of safety, then why isn’t causing an accident while driving an uninspected vehicle automatically taken as negligence of some order?
I think we’ve had licensing for so long that we’ve essentially forgotten why we started it in the first place. A driver’s license has evolved into our primary form of ID and we never seem to use it anymore to demonstrate that we have the proven skill to direct a massive metal machine at high speeds through populated areas. We’ve reached the point where there really isn’t any practical or legal connection between having a driver’s license and being an acceptably safe driver. If there was some sort of connection, then causing a fatal accident while not having (or ever having had) a driver’s license would be considered prima facie evidence of being an irresponsible and dangerous driver. That would be doubly true if the cause of the accident was the use of a dangerous technique that license testing forbids.
I think it fair to say that today there is very little connection between safe driving and possession of a license. Getting a license has become more about ritual and revenue than safe driving. Certainly, a system of letting people drive as long as they were privately insured couldn’t be any worse. At least the insurance companies would have skin in the game.
[Note: The fact that Arrellano-Aviles is almost certainly an illegal immigrant isn’t really relevant to the point here. Unlicensed, uninsured and uninspected illegal immigrant drivers are a major problem in the Southwest but a lot of legal residents and natives drive around without those supposedly necessary documents as well. Illegal immigrant drivers are irrelevant to the question of whether government licenses really advance safety or not. At best, the fact that many who scream loudest about the need for the government to ensure safety are also often the quietest when it comes to the harm caused by illegal immigrant drivers suggest that licensing isn’t about safety after all.]