I'm Jennifer Ludden, in for Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll hear from a psychologist about how our brains react to hot button political topics.

But first, all this week, NPR is taking a look at the safety of our highways and roads in a series we're calling On the Road to Safety. Here at TELL ME MORE, we're going to explore the risks to road safety posed by unlicensed and uninsured drivers.

In a moment, the debate over the potential benefits and drawbacks of drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants. Right now, just three American states, Illinois, New Mexico and Washington State allow the undocumented to have a license.

First, we'll get a broader snapshot of the safety issues with Loretta Worters. She's Vice President of the Insurance Information Institute. Welcome.

Ms. LORETTA WORTERS (Vice President, Insurance Information Institute): Thank you.

LUDDEN: So, let's start with the basic question, how many uninsured drivers are there in the U.S.?

Ms. WORTERS: Well, you know, it's kind of hard to document that when, you know, you don't have the actual numbers. You don't have those people coming up to you and saying I'm not licensed. So, but we do feel that there is a substantial number of people who are uninsured in this country. In fact, one in 16 drivers nationwide, we feel, will be uninsured by next year.

LUDDEN: And I know you're - it's hard to get numbers at all, but any idea of how many would be undocumented immigrants?

Ms. WORTERS: Really hard to tell. Again the same problem, of course, because they are undocumented that it's difficult until an accident happens and you know that that person has no insurance.

LUDDEN: How much variation is there state to state?

Ms. WORTERS: Quite a bit. Actually it's interesting, New Mexico has about 29 percent, the highest uninsured drivers in the country compared to Massachusetts, which has about 1 percent and is in fact the lowest.

LUDDEN: That's interesting because New Mexico is one of now only a handful of states left who does still issue licenses to the undocumented.

Ms. WORTERS: Correct.

LUDDEN: And you say Massachusetts has the lowest rate?

Ms. WORTERS: Massachusetts has the lowest rate with 1 percent.

LUDDEN: Any idea why?

Ms. WORTERS: It's hard to determine. It could be there is some more education in the part of that state. But there's clearly a correlation with New Mexico in the fact that people who are undocumented can get licenses.

LUDDEN: Now, to flip the question around a little bit, we don't really know how many of the uninsured are undocumented. Do you have any idea how many undocumented workers might carry auto insurance regardless of whether or not they have a driver's license?

Ms. WORTERS: I think the percentage would be relatively low for the same reasons. I think a lot of undocumented workers who are illegal aliens may have some concerns about perhaps being deported back to their native country. So there's a big fear on their part to have any kind of dealings with government officials or with any kind of state officials.

LUDDEN: But technically speaking, do you need a license to get insurance?

Ms. WORTERS: Yes, you do. Most states require drivers to have auto liability insurance before they can legally drive a car.

LUDDEN: Now from an insurance industry perspective, what are some of the concerns of having presumably this growing number of undocumented workers without licenses?

Ms. WORTERS: Well, the big concern for the industry, as a whole, is certainly the undocumented workers but the issue, in general, of being uninsured in this country. You know, when you have that many people that are uninsured, there's a concern about safety issues. There's a concern about, you know, the liability aspects which could be quite chilling.

LUDDEN: You mentioned safety and liability issues, can you tell me more?

Ms. WORTERS: Certainly, liability insurance is compulsory in 49 states and the District of Columbia. That's an important type of coverage to have because those people who don't have liability insurance and are involved in an accident could be liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills and any kind of injuries that are done to that person. So it's really important to have that kind of coverage.

LUDDEN: And if they can't pay that, if there's no insurance, then does the victim of that accident bear that responsibility?

Ms. WORTERS: Well, actually what could happen the courts could award the home and sell the home off on the person and any assets they have.

LUDDEN: This is the victim or the person who perpetrated it?

Ms. WORTERS: This is the person who - the perpetrator who hit them would be liable and their - any kind of salary that they do have would be garnished, any future earnings would be garnished, their home could be sold and taken away from them. It's really a devastating situation if anybody is involved and does not have insurance.

LUDDEN: Loretta Worters is vice president of the Insurance Information Institute and she joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.

Ms. WORTERS: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Now, let's look a little more at the policy concerns over undocumented immigrants and drivers' licenses. Joining me is Kevin Johnson, Dean of the University of California Davis School of Law. Also, Ira Mehlman, he is media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Welcome to you both.

Mr. IRA MEHLMAN (Media Director, Federation for American Immigration Reform): Thanks very much.

Mr. KEITH JOHNSON (Dean, School of Law, University of California, Davis): Thanks, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Kevin Johnson, let me start with you. Where do we stand now with state laws that allow undocumented immigrants to have a driver's license?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, there are relatively - as you mentioned before, relatively few states that currently allow undocumented immigrants to secure driver's license. California, until 1994, did permit undocumented immigrants if they satisfied the safety testing to secure driver's license.

But over the years, the number of states have, including California, have eliminated that possibility for undocumented immigrants, and New Mexico and a handful of other states now are the only ones left that do permit undocumented immigrants to secure driver's license.

LUDDEN: And this is a process that has really accelerated since 9/11, is that correct?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think it began before September 11th. It began really in the 1990s. In California, it began with the passage of the measure known as Proposition 187, which was designed for the states to reduce public benefits to undocumented immigrants. And that was followed by increased border enforcement later in the �90s and in 1996 immigration reform. And it did get some renewed attention after September 11. But I think it's been a process that's been going on for well over a decade.

LUDDEN: Ira Mehlman, you're group encourages states to deny licenses for the undocumented. Tell me the rationale.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, if people are in a country illegally, we should not be facilitating their presence here and making it easier for them to live, work and do whatever it is that they want to do in this country. A driver's license is an important document not just for the purpose of operating a motor vehicle, but it is used as a piece of identification for just about all sorts of things that people need to identify themselves for.

And there is no reason why state governments ought to be handing this valuable piece of documentation to people who have no right to be in the country to begin with.

LUDDEN: But what about safety concerns? If you don't have a license and then you can't get insurance, what about the risk to road safety in that sense?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, the alternative to giving everybody who's here illegally, licenses, is to start enforcing motor vehicle codes and enforcing the law against people who drive without licenses. If people understood that if we catch you driving without a license, we're going to impound your vehicle, we're going to call ICE and say come take a look at this guy, because he might be in the country illegally. That would be a deterrent to people who are in the country illegally driving without licenses.

LUDDEN: Kevin Johnson, are there lax enforcement of motor vehicle law?

Mr. JOHNSON: No, I don't think so at all and actually I take a slightly different position on this issue. I'm very interested in public safety and I think that all drivers on the road, hopefully, are licensed because if you have a license, then you've been subjected to some kind of safety testing. And I prefer that all drivers on the road, documented or not, have that safety testing. And that's why we have licensing laws.

At the same time, as we have heard, if you don't have a driver's license, you can't obtain liability insurance. And so, the current situation is very anti-safety in terms of most Americans. So this current system, in many states, where undocumented immigrants can obtain a driver's license is unsafe for U.S. citizens and lawful immigrants. And in my mind, it doesn't make a lot of sense.

LUDDEN: What do we know about, you know, if states are denying licenses to the undocumented, does that mean they're actually not driving or they're driving anyway or do they stay home?

Mr. JOHNSON: I don't think there's any evidence really that people without licenses need to get to work or do work here. We're talking about 12 million undocumented immigrants who, our best estimates show, live in the United States. There's no evidence that they're not driving. It's unfortunate that they can't secure licenses in many states. But that increases the safety risks.

I mean, there are some issues about how we treat the undocumented immigrants and whether we're treating them fairly or not in the current situation. But this current system tends to drive them more underground and creates the possibility that they're more likely to flee when stopped, more likely create unsafe situations for officers and themselves upon a stop. And in many ways, it's just not safe.

LUDDEN: Ira Mehlman, what about that argument?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, there are other ways of convincing people who don't have driver's licenses not to drive. You know, just because somebody is here doesn't mean that we have to permit them to drive. And as Ms. Worters a little while ago pointed out, giving somebody a driver's license if they're in the country illegally is no guarantee that they're going to get the liability insurance that we all think people on the road ought to have.

As she pointed out, New Mexico, which is the one state that actually affirmatively says you can get a driver's license if you're an illegal alien, and they have the highest rate of uninsured drivers. And it's because you have a large group of people who have shown disregard for the law.

They encountered an immigration law that inconvenient: They disobeyed it. The law says they're not allowed to work in this country: They tell us they're driving the car to get to work. But what makes us think that people who have shown a disregard for the law are going to go out and spend a couple thousand dollars a year to buy insurance to protect assets they don't have in the first place?

LUDDEN: Kevin Johnson, I understand that some states are kind of cutting it in the middle here, and they're coming up with what's called a two-tier license. Can you explain that?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, that's where there'd be some identification on the license that the person isn't a U.S. citizen.

LUDDEN: So that would mean they could drive, but for example maybe not board a plane with a license.

Mr. JOHNSON: Correct. And that's been challenged by some state legislatures as opening the door to racial profiling, as signaling to police this person may well be undocumented, look more carefully. So that's been the concern with that kind of licensing scheme.

I mean, but I do think it's important to remember that we were fine before 1994. And in many ways, I think the specter of disaster that would come with allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses is overstated.

LUDDEN: Ira Mehlman, what about this notion of a two-tier license, where you signal that someone's not a citizen, and the license is very restricted in its use. Would you support that?

Mr. MEHLMAN: No. There is no reason to make it easy for people to live in the United States illegally. If you want to control illegal immigration, you have to make it as difficult as possible for people to live here in the United States in violation of the law. Each time you make it easier, you encourage more people to break the law.

LUDDEN: But if the issue is road safety?

Mr. MEHLMAN: There are other ways of ensuring road safety, and as Ms. Worters pointed out, giving people driver's licenses who are in the country illegally is no guarantee that they're going to get insurance, and New Mexico is a perfect example, the easiest state to get a driver's license in if you're an illegal alien and the highest rate of uninsured drivers.

LUDDEN: Ira Mehlman is media director for the Federation of American Immigration Reform and joined us from his office in Seattle. Kevin Johnson is dean of the University of California Davis School of Law, and he joined us from their studios. Thank you, both of you.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Thank you.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thanks very much.

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