State Officials Recommend Driver's License Database
By Greg McDonald, Senior Writer
The clerks at your local department of motor vehicles may not look like cops, but if the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators has its way, they may soon become a vital part of U.S. law enforcement and the fight against terrorism.
On Monday, the AAMVA recommended that Congress and the states spend up to $100 million to help expand a national commercial drivers license database of 10 million to include the nations more than 200 million passenger car license holders. The money, said association spokesman Jason King, would pay for better technology and other tools state motor vehicle departments could use to help identify people who apply for drivers permits.
The association also recommended at its Monday news conference in Washington, D.C., that state motor vehicle records be linked to the Social Security Administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI and other the databases belonging to national and state law enforcement agencies. The links would give motor vehicle departments access to fingerprints, criminal, residency and work records.
The association recommendations were similar in scope to the commercial drivers database program, which Congress mandated in 1986, that now helps states keep tabs on truck drivers. The commercial database was designed to make it easier for states to identify drivers with bad records and to prevent them from obtaining multiple licenses. But since the September 11 terrorist attacks, national security experts have been touting the idea of turning drivers licenses into national identity cards by expanding the commercial database to include all U.S. drivers license holders.
The AAMVA does not advocate the creation of a national identity card program, said King, even though he acknowledges that drivers licenses are often used now as the primary piece of information for identification purposes.
"The drivers license has already become your defacto identification card...But the reality is a drivers license is not a required document. If you don't drive, you don't have to have one," said King.
Still, about 90 percent of driver-age Americans carry a state-approved license. And if accepted, the AAMVA recommendations would replace what are now 50 different permitting processes with one nationwide, uniform system of identification requiring the states to share information on drivers and to use the same security standards for licensing. The states, however, would still maintain their own authority to issue state-specific driving licenses. But each license, regardless of which state it is issued in, would be imprinted with nationally-recognized coding or other technological characteristices to help authorities keep better track of an individual's identity.
"Our interest is to establish one license, one record and one identity," AAMVA President Linda Lewis told reporters.
Although it may take years to fully implement, King said work on the system could begin right away.
"We already have the (the state motor vehicle) offices, we already have the employees and we already have (the commercial database) process...And If we can prevent identity fraud at the counter...we have actually helped protect your privacy and the national security."
Advocates for non-citizen immigrants, however, fear that giving expanded authority to state motor vehicle departments will only make it harder for people who are in the country legitimately to get a drivers license. Since September 11, many immigrants who might have qualified for a license are now being rejected for no reason.
In Massachusetts, for example, The Boston Globe reported (1/11) that the Registry of Motor Vehicles has denied applications to dozen of immigrants who have appropriate documentation to obtain a driver's license. Complaints about the rejections have prompted a review of RMV policy by Massachusetts officials.
The AAMVA first floated its plan to expand the commercial drivers' database to include all license holders seven years ago, Lewis said. But the proposal was rejected by Congress and state legislatures, many of which have actually eased up on licensing restrictions in recent years. Lewis said she is hopeful lawmakers will be more receptive now to the association's recommendations in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
"It's not about politics. It's about people, it's about safety and it's about saving lives," Lewis said.