11:05 PM EST, January 26, 2013
I got into a minor fender-bender once near downtown Los Angeles and suggested to the other driver that we pull off the highway and deal with the matter on a safer city street.
She said OK, then disappeared.
Was she uninsured, or maybe unlicensed?
It wouldn't be surprising. A national study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that unlicensed drivers are much more likely to leave the scene of an accident. And the California Department of Motor Vehicles recently reported that unlicensed drivers are three times as likely to cause a fatal crash as licensed drivers.
That's bad news in a state with an estimated 2 million unlicensed drivers, many of them ineligible for licenses because they're here illegally.
The news emboldened two groups with radically different solutions. From one side came renewed calls for allowing illegal immigrants to get licenses and go through the screening process that might make them safer drivers. From the other side came calls for doing more to keep unlicensed drivers off the roads and sending illegal immigrants back to where they came from.
Don Rosenberg, a Westlake Village resident who calls himself a lifelong liberal, has moved from the former group to the latter, and he's been on a crusade to get his story out there. Or, more accurately, the story of his son.
On the evening of Nov. 16, 2010, Rosenberg and his wife got horrible news about their 25-year-old son. Drew Rosenberg, a second-year law student, was riding his motorcycle when he was struck and killed by an unlicensed driver.
The driver, Robert Galo, was a Honduran native who was in the United States on temporary protective status, meaning that he was eligible to get a driver's license. But he hadn't done so. Moreover, just five months before killing Drew Rosenberg, Galo had been cited for driving without a license or insurance and heading the wrong way on a one-way street.
In that first incident, Galo's car was seized, but under a San Francisco policy similar to one now in place in Los Angeles, an acquaintance was allowed to retrieve it the next day. Galo paid a fine for driving the wrong way on a one-way street, but the other violations — driving without a license or insurance — were dropped. He went on driving, without a license, until the day he took Drew Rosenberg's life, for which he was convicted of manslaughter and served six weeks in jail before his release.
To Don Rosenberg, the flouting of the law was outrageous.
"I can't save [my son], but I hope I can keep this same thing from happening to someone else," said Rosenberg, an entertainment industry consultant who has devoted himself to researching accidents involving unlicensed drivers.
Rosenberg set up a website (www.unlicensedtokill.org) to chronicle his findings and argue for tougher enforcement of unlicensed drivers. But it's an uphill fight in Los Angeles. In 2012, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and the Police Commission enacted a policy that makes it possible for unlicensed drivers to get their cars back almost immediately, rather than having to wait 30 days and pay as much as $1,200.
Beck called it "a fairness issue for people who don't have the opportunity to get licenses. And it is a chance to build ties with a community that feels marginalized and that my officers have a lot of contact with. It is good to show some sense of understanding of their plight."
Don Rosenberg finds it absurd that someone can drive without a license, get caught and be allowed to continue driving almost immediately.
"Immigration status is irrelevant," he said. "If you drive without a license or a suspended or revoked license, your car should be impounded the first time.... The second time your car should be forfeited and you should receive the maximum fine."
But immigration status isn't irrelevant, since we have an abundance of illegal immigrants, and they drive even though they're ineligible for licenses.
Does that mean we should license people regardless of their immigration status? Beck, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca are among those who support giving "provisional" licenses to illegal immigrants.
"Why wouldn't you want to put people through a rigorous testing process?" Beck asked last year.
Rosenberg disagrees. He said he understands the economic motivation behind illegal immigration, and the U.S. demand for cheap labor that drives the flow. But he considers it preposterous that we make great efforts to stop illegal immigrants at the border, and then make it easy if not legal for them to drive, open bank accounts, get medical care and send their children to school once they slip across the border. He doesn't think testing for licenses would necessarily make illegal immigrants better drivers.
"I'm just looking for sane policy," he said.
If only we could agree on what that might be. In the meantime, I share Rosenberg's concerns about letting unlicensed drivers get their cars back willy-nilly after being pulled over. Why have licenses at all?
But we part company on whether illegal immigrants should be able to get licenses. If we're going to have millions of them driving — thanks to our lack of consensus on whether to deport them or offer them a chance at legal status — I'd rather see them tested and certified.
But Rosenberg is trying to make the streets safer for all of us, and asking good questions about whether the rule of law stands for anything. And he's doing it in the memory of his first-born son.