policeman reaching into carEnlarge Photo
Many police departments around the U.S. impound the cars of drivers caught behind the wheel without a license.
But starting Sunday, San Francisco plans to abolish that policy, calling it unfair to illegal immigrants.
Mayor Gavin Newsom, police chief George Gascón, and supervisor David Campos (himself a former illegal immigrant) all agree that impounding cars is particularly punitive for undocumented aliens, who are unable get licenses under California law.
Instead, police will give any license-less driver time to call a friend or relative to come drive the car away. The driver will still be cited for driving without a license, however, and the car will be impounded if no one shows up within 20 minutes.
The exemption will only be granted once, but the clock resets after six months.
The policy has generated some backlash even among a San Francisco citizenry that is usually beyond tolerant of all sorts of behavior that raises eyebrows elsewhere.
A Monday article on SFgate.com that described the new policy generated more than 1,500 comments, the bulk of them against the policy. Letters to the San Francisco Chronicle slammed it, as did columnist Debra J. Saunders, who called it "a sop to the pro-illegal immigrant lobby."
The paper itself simply editorialized against California's policy of refusing to issue driver's licenses to undocumented aliens.
The change is also unpopular among police, who say drivers without licenses are among the worst drivers of all. An anonymous traffic cop called them "the same people ... sailing through stop signs and injuring people."
A study of fatal accidents by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, cited by Saunders, found that 20 percent of fatal car crashes from 2001 through 2005 involved one or more unlicensed or improperly licensed drivers.
Worse, in California, almost one in three fatal crashes involved an unlicensed or invalidly licensed driver.
It's worth noting, by the way, that the state of California requires all drivers to be insured but does not require proof of insurance to register a car as many states do.
Its annual vehicle inspections cover only emissions; they do not check whether lights and brakes are working and tires have adequate tread, as is the practice in other states.