The Driver License: Is It Necessary?

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Driving Freedoms (the NMA’s quarterly print newsletter for supporting members).

Do we really need one?

Opinions vary widely. In recent years, there have been two legislative efforts to convert the ubiquitous state driver license into a national ID card, making it the essential “show us your papers” document in order to navigate in, around, and through our society.

At the other end of the spectrum, a current movement to do away with the driver license altogether may seem impractical, but it is gathering momentum in regions around the U.S.

Which should it be – a federally-mandated document that uniquely identifies its holder and is necessary to provide the right to drive, to fly, and to participate in various governmental programs, or an extraneous card that serves no useful purpose in a society where individuals have the right to travel without restrictions?

Let’s examine these two diametrically opposed positions:

Driver License as National ID

The Real ID Act of 2005 was enacted, but has not gotten off the ground yet. Real ID is premised on a national ID system based on the driver license. One significant administrative problem with this is that the states, not the federal government, control the requirements of driver licenses, and no two state licenses are exactly the same.

Real ID puts forth requirements so that the various state driver licenses would be accepted by the federal government in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security.

In March 2007, the government announced that the requirements of Real ID wouldn’t be enacted until 2009, supposedly giving the federal and state governments time to implement a workable system. In early 2008, the implementation deadline was further extended to 2011.

In the meantime, U.S. Senate Bill S.1261 was introduced and subsequently reported by committee in July 2009. Also known as Pass ID, S.1261 was claimed by supporters to solve some of the inherent problems of Real ID. Pass ID has been on the Senate’s calendar of business since December 2009, but has not been brought up for vote. In essence, it has been all but abandoned.

Real ID is a time-delayed national ID law hanging over our heads. Somewhat ominously, it states that after 2011, “a Federal agency may not accept, for any official purpose, a driver’s license or identification card issued by a state to any person unless the state is meeting the [Real ID] requirements.”

States can keep issuing their unique driver licenses, but unless the requirements of Real ID are met, those driver licenses will not be accepted as federal identification. It does not seem likely that all — if any — states will be in compliance by 2011. What a mess!

Ironically, personal security under Real ID is a significant concern. To quote from a January 14, 2008 NMA Blog article, “The manner in which the driver license is carried and used makes it highly susceptible to theft and physical loss. Under the ‘one national ID number’ concept, the compromise of that number would expose the victim to financial ruin, malicious acts, and the exposure of highly personal information. Having a single national ID card/number is an invitation to fraud, theft and the loss of personal security and individual privacy.”

From the same NMA article, “Such a [Real ID] system will not deter terrorists and will not make our society safer, but will make our society less free and more authoritarian.”

As the Real ID law is presently configured, people born on or after December 1, 1964, will be required to obtain national ID by December 1, 2014. Those born before that 1964 date will have until December 1, 2017 to obtain their Real ID.

Real ID should be repealed, and the notion dismissed that the driver license be used as a national ID card.

Eliminate the Driver License

Georgia State Representative Bobby Franklin (R-Marietta) introduced House Bill 875 in November 2009. The first two sentences of that proposed legislation, better known as the “Right to Travel Act,” summarize what the bill is about: “Free people have a common law and constitutional right to travel on the roads and highways that are provided by their government for that purpose. Licensing of drivers cannot be required of free people because taking on the restrictions of a license requires the surrender of an inalienable right.”

Meanwhile, other groups around the country are pushing to introduce similar bills to their state legislatures in order to question the constitutionality of certain laws related to driver licenses.

The NMA View

Much of the anger and concern surrounding this issue is based on the federal government’s attempt to leverage the driver license into a national ID card. The feds are trying to use the driver license as a club to enforce government sanctions, or to use it as a means to circumvent basic rights, such as implied consent that a citizen can be forced to give evidence against him or herself.

The basic (and only legitimate) purpose of the driver license is to certify that the owner of that license has proven that he/she is capable of operating a motor vehicle on public roads in a safe and responsible manner. The license should not be withheld for any reason other than the fact that the applicant could not pass a fair and objective driving test.

The driver license can be taken away if the holder drives in such a way as to endanger others, but it should not be confiscated for any other reason, and it should not be demanded as a formal means of personal identification.

If shrewder heads prevail in our ruling class, they will understand that defusing the anti-driver license movement will require the federal and state governments to stop using the driver license for purposes other than basic certification of a driver’s competence.

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