MY SIDE OF THE STREET: They’re not just bad drivers, they’re unlicensed, too

It’s no secret that Eureka has a lot of problems with traffic, including a very high rate of collisions and more pedestrian fatalities than other cities its size. A report in last Friday’s Times-Standard revealed another, and possibly related situation. Most police agencies in Humboldt County are citing drivers without valid licenses on a daily basis.

There are multiple reasons to be concerned. A driver who has never been licensed may not have received any proper training. A driver whose license has been suspended or revoked may be a problem drinker with a history of driving under the influence. And motorists without a valid license can’t get insurance, so if one causes an accident, victims have to make a claim on their own insurance, possibly endangering their rates.

According to the story, in the year between May 1, 2012 and May 1, 2013 the Eureka Police Department cited 274 people for driving with no license or with an expired license. Another 285 were driving with a suspended license. It’s not just a problem in Eureka, either. Reporting periods from various departments varied, but in the first four months of this year, Fortuna police reported 38, 14 and 48 citations in those categories.

In Arcata, the numbers for 12 months were 120 for license violations and 105 for no insurance. In the Garberville CHP enforcement area, one year added up to 150 tickets for no license and 159 for a suspended or revoked license. The California Highway Patrol as a whole wrote more than 108,000 tickets in 2012 to California drivers without valid licenses.

Police officers told the Times-Standard not all such drivers have drunk driving convictions. Some forgot to renew their licenses, or didn’t know they had been suspended for too many traffic violations, failure to appear in court, not making child support payments or not paying fines. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t fill me with confidence.

And plenty of them have been convicted of DUI and are on probation. When they have time, EPD officers will stake out such offenders. They wait down the street and if the person drives away from home, they pull the vehicle over, cite the driver and have the car impounded.

I know that can impact other family members, but if they don’t have the support they need to prevent their cars from being used as tools of crime, I’d rather have the problem drinker – and scofflaw – on foot than behind the wheel. I lived in Eureka for 14 years, but I don’t go there very often now.

When I do, I feel like a sissy as I slink from one part of town to another. I used to walk an hour a day, and I was watchful of traffic, but not terrified. Now I’d be a lot more worried, especially since another pedestrian was struck and killed in a crosswalk two weeks ago.

A driver might not be cited for driving without a valid license if there are other, more serious charges, and won’t show up in those statistics. The vast majority of motorists who are cited for license related offenses were stopped for something else, since there is no easy way to spot them, such as an expired vehicle registration sticker.

At least our local law enforcement agencies haven’t just given up. A recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle about pedestrian fatalities highlighted Bay Area cases in which the driver was clearly at fault and wasn’t even charged with a moving violation. Prosecutors said there was no point in bringing charges, because juries are made up of motorists, and they won’t vote to convict a driver who kills a pedestrian.

Maybe they are right, but I’d like to see that play out in court – in public. There might be cases where the driver acted without malice, but if someone is killed, and the evidence shows fault, the case shouldn’t just be dropped because some jurors might feel sympathetic toward the person responsible. And it seems to me that the majority of unlicensed drivers have deeper motives than forgetting to renew their license.

It’s next to impossible to get around Humboldt County without driving, and that’s a crying need which ought to be addressed. There are just a few busses per day from Scotia to Trinidad, and the trip takes more than two hours each way. Maybe it seems like a good bet to drive without a license and hope to not get caught.

Libertarians who believe government should stay out of citizens’ way would argue that traffic laws, drivers’ licenses and insurance are unreasonable intrusions on our lives, but I’m not inclined to agree. If I’m injured by an unlicensed driver, I’d rather trust my insurance company and law enforcement to take care of me than hope the other party will voluntarily do the right thing.

(Elizabeth Alves sees a lot of bad driving, and is always grateful to get where she’s going without trouble. Comments and suggestions are welcome care of the Press or to mysidestreet@gmail.com)