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Public Safety | Daily Report | DUI Checkpoints

Traffic safety enters checkpoint impound debate

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Debate over impounds at California’s sobriety checkpoints has focused on immigration, civil rights and government corruption for much of the past year.

Few of the arguments have dealt with traffic safety.

That is likely to change today, when the state Senate Public Safety Committee considers two pieces of legislation (AB 1389 and AB 353) intended to curb vehicle seizures at the roadway operations.

In recent years, police at checkpoints have seized roughly six times as many cars – many from sober, unlicensed drivers – as they have made drunken driving arrests. The overwhelming majority of unlicensed drivers in California are illegal immigrants who cannot obtain a license.

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Don Rosenberg, whose son died in November in a vehicle collision with an unlicensed driver, plans to testify at the committee hearing. He hopes to push lawmakers to consider traffic fatality numbers over other concerns.

“If you’re driving without a license, the car shouldn’t be impounded,” Rosenberg said. “It should be confiscated.”

Rosenberg cites a 2000 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety as evidence that motorists without licenses pose a significant risk, enough to justify vehicle seizure.

The report, “Unlicensed to Kill,” analyzed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data and has been the primary source document [PDF] for those in support of California’s impound law.

“Compared with licensed drivers, unlicensed drivers are 4.9 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash; 3.7 times more likely to drive while impaired; and 4.4 times more likely to be in hit-and-run crashes,” David Ragland, a UC Berkeley public health professor, wrote last month in summarizing the AAA study’s findings.

The data documents collisions from 1993 to 1997. Unlicensed drivers were involved in 3.7 percent of fatal accidents during that period.

Ragland is director of the Safe Transportation Research & Education Center, which operates a checkpoint grants program for the California Office of Traffic Safety. The program pays the expense of running roadway operations in more than 100 cities.

Separate from his strong support for checkpoints and impounds, Ragland also has argued that blocking illegal immigrants from securing licenses poses its own risk, leaving millions of motorists without instruction and certification.

“With respect to traffic safety, I think there’s no doubt that being able to license a population will improve traffic safety,” Ragland said in an interview last year.

Much of the controversy over checkpoint impounds has come from the fact that seized cars generate tens of millions of dollars a year for cities and tow firms. In the city of Bell, impounds helped fund huge, possibly illegal, salaries for top city officials.

State law mandates that when a motorist is caught driving without a license, his vehicle shall be impounded for 30 days. Storage fees alone regularly accrue to more than $1,200, too much for many car owners to pay.

The length of impoundment is part of the reason why the AAA study’s authors think the penalty works. To quote:

Vehicle impoundment in California is for a period of 30 days, but the analyses ... were on one year’s worth of citations and crashes. Therefore, the benefits of vehicle impoundment are likely to result not just from diminished driving during the 30-day impoundment period but from diminished driving and/or more cautious driving during the 11 months following vehicle impoundment.

The report, however, acknowledges impounds are an imperfect deterrent.

Although the results of California’s vehicle impoundment program are impressive, it should also be noted that during a one-year follow-up period, many unlicensed, suspended, and revoked drivers whose vehicles had been impounded for 30 days continued to drive; continued to be convicted of unlicensed driving and driving with a suspended or revoked license; and continued to be involved in crashes.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report, DUI Checkpoints

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