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Checkpoints about safety, not police overtime 'cash cows'
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A number of California newspaper publications recently ran stories about how DUI/drivers' license checkpoints serve to benefit police departments, police officers and tow truck companies. These stories appear to be based on a study conducted by an investigative news entity that calls itself "California Watch." The author suggests that, because there has been an increasing trend in the use of DUI/drivers' license checkpoints and a corresponding increase in the number of vehicles impounded, local governments are using the fines as a means to make up for budget shortfalls. The report implies that checkpoints are cash cows for overtime-hungry police officers.

I do not dispute the facts included in the report, nor have I seen any obvious errors in the articles. However, one of the "spins" seem to be an attempt to draw on the reader's sympathy for unlicensed drivers who have their vehicles impounded. The message weaved throughout these stories impart an overriding concern with license law violators, making them out to be victims of a system that is unfair and punitive.

What is glaringly absent from these news stories, however, is the impact unlicensed drivers have on innocent pedestrians and bicyclists who are struck, and the licensed drivers whose vehicles are collided with. There is not one word about the victim impact that some one million unlicensed/suspended motorists are having on California's licensed motoring public. The obvious impacts are on those with whom unlicensed motorists collide, and the insurance companies spread the cost of uninsured and unlicensed motorists among the law-abiding people who keep their insurance policies up to date.

Unlicensed drivers are 66 times more likely to be involved in hit-and-runs, and 20 percent of fatal collisions involve at least one motorist who is not permitted to drive. To make matters worse, the real consequences for being unlicensed and/or uninsured are relatively minor. Few violators will see jail time, even after numerous convictions for operating a vehicle in violation of laws.

In an article I wrote on this subject in 2009, I quote: "From an enforcement perspective, I see the public safety justification for rigorous enforcement of drivers' license laws. The statistics support the idea that unlicensed drivers pose greater hazards to the motoring public." Curiously, some insurance companies sell insurance policies to these higher-risk persons who have no license, despite knowing they are more likely to be involved in collisions and hit-and-runs. These companies, perhaps, spread the risk among their policyholders by way of higher premiums.

I was recently contacted by a citizen who wanted to know how the law was going to help recover his losses resulting from a recent collision. He was stopped in heavy traffic on the freeway when an inattentive motorist slammed into him at an estimated 60 mph. After several days in the hospital, numerous doctor visits and a totalled vehicle, he learned that the driver was unlicensed, never has been licensed and uninsured. Police were unable to determine the motorist's true identity. There is no way to recoup any costs associated with the collision, and now his insurance rate is likely to increase.

Violators drive without licenses for many reasons. Many lost their license because of DUI convictions and many others ended up with a suspension after being involved in a collision while uninsured. Some have their licenses suspended for failure to pay child support, others have accrued too many citations, and some due to their residency or citizenship status. Whatever the reason, the statistics clearly show that unlicensed/suspended motorists pose a public safety hazard because of their propensity for being involved in collisions and the likelihood for unlawfully leaving collision scenes.

The suggestion that checkpoints are an overtime cash cow for police officers is more drama than fact. Most police agencies have trouble filling vacant shifts with overtime officers, and as has been experienced here in this city, the department sometimes has to resort to mandating personnel to come in off duty to fill overtime "slots." These checkpoints last only several hours, and most personnel are reluctant to interfere with one of their days off to spend an evening working at a checkpoint.

The fact that there are one million (or perhaps more) unlicensed motorists using the streets and highways of California is testimony to a very broken system. There are issues to be addressed with people who cannot get licenses because of their immigration status. The fines, fees and penalties are insufficient as to thwart potential violators and most publicity directed at this issue seems to disregard law-abiding motorists as actual and potential victims. The police are not empowered to address the underlying social issues, and the governmental policies that complicate the situation are beyond their purview. Above all, the police have a duty to enforce the law and protect the innocent. I see the licensing issue as a matter of public safety and protecting the rights of those complying with the law. It is not about generating revenues for local governments or lining the pockets of police personnel. It is about holding those who break the law accountable and preventing unnecessary burdens on those who obey the law.