First, it’s a license to drive

OUR OPINION (Feb. 25, 2008) • South Bend Tribune

Recent consternation in Indiana and Michigan has us rethinking the whole driver’s license issue. We wonder: Has it occurred to anyone else that way too much is being asked these days of a driver’s license?

Let’s return the humble driver’s license to its original function. Let’s free it from the demands of being an ID that enables its bearer to board an airplane, cross a border, enter a voting booth — or, for that matter, write a check or buy a bottle of Chianti. If we did free the driver’s license, many of the driver’s license dilemmas facing states would be eliminated.

States absolutely do need to issue secure IDs. No doubt about it. These IDs need to meet federal security requirements, should only be issued to those who can prove their identity and should be exceedingly difficult to counterfeit.

We have no quarrel with the federal Real ID Act. Requiring reliable identification is an essential element in securing federal facilities, borders and transportation.

But the Real ID Act does get troublesome when states try to comply with it by making a secure ID also perform the function of a driver’s license.

If the sole purpose of a driver’s license were to show the holder’s eligibility to operate a motor vehicle, then states could without reservation issue licenses to any able individual. License holders could even keep them in their cars, along with their registration and proof of insurance. There would be no need to carry them in wallets since they wouldn’t be IDs — no more so than state-issued hunting licenses, fishing licenses or businesses licenses are IDs.

The state’s interest in issuing driver’s licenses is to promote public safety and protect property. To get a driver’s license, a teenager must complete a training period and attain a certain age. Then, the prospective driver must take a vision test, a written test and a road test to demonstrate ability. Finally, to receive a license the applicant must produce proof of liability insurance.

It is in the public interest for states to promote safe, responsible driving. This public interest is undermined when a state takes its eye off that goal and denies licenses to individuals for reasons that have nothing at all to do with driving ability.

Indiana is taking away the driver’s licenses of people whose names don’t match their Social Security numbers in Bureau of Motor Vehicles records — not because they aren’t competent drivers. Michigan plans to take away the licenses of immigrants because they don’t have green cards — also not because they aren’t competent drivers.

Do you think that many of these people will continue to drive after they no longer have licenses? We do.

Now ask yourself this: If you’re in an accident and the other person is at fault, will your first thought be, “Is he a legal immigrant?” Or will it be, “Does he have insurance?” We think we can guess.

Secure IDs? Yes. Driver’s licenses? Yes. But let these two be separate documents. And make the qualifications for receiving each fit the document’s function.