Richardson’s Stats Misleading in Defense of Immigrant Driver’s Licenses

November 19, 2007

Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Richardson points to a substantial drop in uninsured motorists in New Mexico when he defends his decision four years ago to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license.

But the governor’s use of his statistics is misleading.

The statewide decline in uninsured motorists has happened mainly because of a 2001 law that established an up-to-date computer database of insurance coverage and allowed the state to better police its requirement for liability insurance on cars and trucks.

That’s the view of Ken Ortiz, director of the state Motor Vehicle Division, which licenses drivers and enforces the insurance mandate.

Granting licenses to undocumented immigrants — as well as foreign nationals living legally in the country — has helped reduce the number of uninsured motorists, according to Ortiz. However, he says the improved database of automobile insurance coverage is the “bigger factor” in why the statewide rate of uninsured vehicles has dropped to 10 percent from 33 percent several years ago.

During a presidential debate last week, Richardson said he supported granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and explained why he signed legislation in 2003 that allowed that in New Mexico.

“My law enforcement people said it’s a matter of public safety. What we need is public safety, a reduction in traffic fatalities. We wanted more people to be insured. When we started with this program, 33 percent of all New Mexicans were uninsured. Today, it’s 11 percent,” Richardson said in the debate in Las Vegas. “Traffic fatalities have gone down. It’s a matter of public safety.”

Pahl Shipley, a spokesman for Richardson’s campaign, said that the “governor is not saying and has never said that the driver’s license law is the sole reason for the drop in uninsured motorists.”

In citing the figures on uninsured motorists — during the debate and a weekend interview on Fox News — Richardson didn’t mention the change in law that required insurance companies to electronically report coverage information directly to the state. With an up-to-date database, the state can quickly and accurately determine whether a car or truck has required liability insurance coverage.

Before that, Ortiz says, a driver could provide proof of insurance when registering a vehicle but then immediately drop coverage and continue to drive.

Now the state gets daily, weekly and monthly updates of coverage from insurance companies.

A private company was hired in late 2002 to maintain the database and early the next year the state began sending notices to motorists with cars or trucks without the required insurance coverage. Vehicle registrations were suspended for those who didn’t obtain insurance.

Ortiz said 33 percent of registered vehicles lacked insurance when the improved insurance enforcement program began four years ago, but that rate has dropped to 10.4 percent, which he said is below the national average. There are nearly 1.7 million vehicles registered in the state.

Richardson took office in 2003, and signed a measure into law that allowed foreign nationals — including those living illegally in the country — to obtain a driver’s license.

“The governor has consistently said that one of the deciding factors in signing the bill in 2003 was that his public safety secretary convinced him that this would help with public safety,” said Shipley.

Ortiz describes the licensing law as a success. Before the state started issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants, Ortiz said, “we felt they were more likely to leave the scene of an accident, less likely to maintain insurance.”

Applicants for a driver’s license who don’t have a Social Security number can present identification such as a tax identification number, a foreign passport or a Matricula Consular issued by the Mexican government.

About 45,000 licenses have been issued to people without a Social Security number. That’s about 3.6 percent of all the licensed drivers in New Mexico. Ortiz assumes most of the 45,000 are foreign nationals, but the state doesn’t know how many are illegal immigrants because immigration status information isn’t collected by MVD.

In answering the debate question about illegal immigrants, Richardson was off-target in citing a decline in fatalities. There were 439 traffic deaths in 2003, 522 in 2004, 488 in 2005 and 484 in 2006, according to state records. During that time, New Mexico has tried to crack down on drunken driving — imposing tougher penalties and increasing police checkpoints to catch those who are intoxicated — and alcohol-related traffic deaths have dropped from 214 in 2003 to 191 in 2006. Traffic accidents in which alcohol wasn’t a factor have increased from 225 in 2003 to 293 in 2006.

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