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OUTLAW DRIVERS KILL FATAL CRASHES OFTEN INVOLVE UNLICENSED MOTORISTS.

Byline: Steve Carney Staff Writer

Twenty-two percent of California drivers involved in fatal crashes had suspended or revoked licenses - or none at all, according an unprecedented study released Wednesday.

And one-fifth of all crashes nationwide involved at least one driver without a proper license, according to the study by the American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety.

``We feel it is a very real safety problem - 8,000 people a year are killed in unlicensed-driver crashes,'' said Stephanie Faul, AAA Foundation spokeswoman. ``These are happening quietly, like a hidden epidemic. It's a significant threat.''

The study, titled ``Unlicensed to Kill,'' examined the correlation between unlicensed drivers and fatal crashes in the United States from 1993 to 1997. It found that drivers who never had licenses, or lost them in court, continue driving anyway and get into a disproportionate number of deadly crashes.

``These are not people who are normally law-abiding and let their licenses lapse,'' Faul said. ``Some of them are just awe-inspiring in their venal idiocy.''

Los Angeles County is home to more than 300,000 drivers with suspended or revoked licenses, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California. That's 6 percent of all the drivers in the county - a figure that mirrors the state's percentage of drivers with suspended or revoked privileges.

The problem isn't that people become bad drivers after their licenses are taken away. They were dangerous drivers to begin with, and lost their licenses because of that behavior, yet still hit the road - ignoring their punishment and endangering others with their recklessness, researchers said.

Faul cited one example of a man who tried to steal a car from an auto showroom. When police arrived, he stole a patrol car.

``It turned out he didn't have a license,'' Faul said. ``Well, what a surprise.''

And another concern for law-abiding drivers - people who don't have licenses usually don't have insurance, either, said Sgt. Richard Rinker of the Los Angeles Police Department's Central Traffic Division.

``Unless you have the foresight to have uninsured motorist coverage, if one of these people hits you, you're basically out of luck,'' he said.

He added that in many cases, investigators can't tell the license status of drivers involved in crashes, because they take off before officers arrive.

``Roughly 50 (percent) to 60 percent of all our traffic accidents are hit-and-run. We believe that a large portion of these are a number of things,'' he said, such as drivers who are intoxicated, who have a suspended or revoked license, or who never had one at all.

According to the AAA report, California trailed only New Mexico, Arizona, the District of Columbia and Hawaii in the percentage of improperly licensed drivers involved in fatal crashes.

``It's not as simple as saying California has worse drivers,'' said Steve Bloch, senior traffic safety researcher for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

``Since California has a very high DUI arrest rate per capita, compared to other states, the state also suspends or revokes a large number of licenses,'' he said.

Bloch noted California has 20 percent of the drunk-driving arrests in the country.

``Many of these drivers continue to drive with invalid licenses,'' he said. ``We take them in, revoke or suspend their licenses and suddenly we have a new problem - revoked or suspended drivers on the road.''

Last week, a woman driving with a suspended license in North Hollywood crashed into a parked truck and killed her 7-year-old son, police said. Lynn Julian, 30, is scheduled for arraignment today on charges of murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and two other counts in connection with the July 5 crash.

And a man whose license had been suspended for failing to appear in court killed a Van Nuys pedestrian in April when he lost control of his Ford Explorer during an epileptic seizure, police said.

The AAA Foundation recommended three ways of dealing with drivers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked - impounding their cars, installing ignition interlocks for DUI drivers and installing electronic driver licenses. But each approach has its pitfalls.

Electronic licenses would force drivers to insert them in a reader before starting the car. A computer would check records for that license to determine whether the driver is restricted because of age, criminal record or other factors. An on-board computer could also chart speed and location, but such information would surely raise privacy concerns, the Foundation report said. In addition, the system would need further safeguards to ensure a teen without a license didn't borrow dad's to go on a joy ride, for example.

California impounds 100,000 cars every year, Bloch said, but some jurisdictions don't take that tactic at all. And, Faul noted, what happens if the state impounds the car because of what dad did, but that leaves mom and the kids with no way to get to work or school?

``You could have a tremendous negative social impact on the family by taking away their transportation,'' she said.

The ignition interlock is a device that DUI offenders must breathe into before starting their cars, to check their blood-alcohol levels. Starting in 1994, California required that the measure be used for multiple DUI offenders - but Bloch said judges imposed the measure in only about 15 percent of cases. He said that should increase, as a new law allows DUI offenders to shave time off their suspensions if they use the device.

The AAA Foundation report concluded that unlicensed drivers are about five times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than licensed drivers. With their figures in hand, Faul said, researchers now must examine success stories in some states and figure out how best to enforce license suspensions and revocations.

``The question becomes, What can you do to keep them off the road?'' Faul said. ``We need to find a way to deal with that.''

CAPTION(S):

chart

Chart: DEADLY DRIVERS

Drivers who shouldn't be behind the wheel - suspended, revoked or nonexistent licenses - are involved in crashes that kill 8,000 people each year. California ranks fifth among all states and the District of Columbia in the percentage of these drivers.

SOURCE: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, Automobile Club of Southern California

Bradford Mar/Staff Artist
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jul 13, 2000
Words:1037
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