Unlicensed Drivers of Private Cars a Far Bigger Threat Than Tour Bus Drivers

Last week’s tragic bus crash in the Bronx, which left 15 dead, has captured the attention of New York’s media and political elite. Since the crash took place nine days ago, the New York Times has published no fewer than seven articles updating its readers on every detail and development.

Peter and Lillian Sabados were killed by a driver who had racked up 29 license suspensions. The calls for stricter licensing procedures following their deaths were far less numerous than the calls for reforming the tour bus industry following last week's fatal casino bus crash in the Bronx.

Much of the attention has centered around whether Ophadell Williams, the bus’s driver, should have been licensed to operate the bus in the first place. Governor Andrew Cuomo took a break from high-stakes budget negotiations to order an investigation of Williams’ driving and criminal records and Senator Chuck Schumer has called for the state DMV to audit every driver’s license held by a tour bus driver. Said Schumer in a WNYC report, “Looking after a crash, or a spot check while the driver is behind the wheel, that’s good, but what would be better is preventing these people who shouldn’t be driving, from getting behind the wheel in the first place.”

Schumer’s focus on prevention must be cold comfort to the family of Peter and Lillian Sabados. The elderly couple were killed in a hit-and-run crash while walking to Thanksgiving Mass in 2009. Their killer, Allmir Lekperic, had amassed at least 29 license suspensions in the three years beforehand. Any attempt to prevent Lekperic from getting behind the wheel in the first place was clearly ineffective.

You’d never know it from watching the news this week, but there are far more Allmir Lekperics in the world than deadly bus drivers. Each year, around 375 people are killed in bus crashes nationwide, according to a 2009 report by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration [PDF]. The bulk of those deaths come from crashes involving school buses and transit buses; charter and tour buses were involved in only 396 out of 2,629 fatalities between 1999 and 2005, around 57 a year.

Compare that to the number of people killed in crashes with improperly licensed drivers. One in five fatal traffic crashes nationwide involves at least one driver without a valid license, according to research by the AAA Foundation [PDF]. Those crashes killed an average of 8,801 people each year.

Crashes involving unlicensed drivers, therefore, killed more than 154 times as many people as all crashes involving charter buses.

Here in New York, the problem is just as acute. According to Transportation Alternatives, unlicensed drivers are four times as likely to be involved in traffic crashes as properly licensed drivers, but 75 percent of motorists with suspended licenses continue to drive.

Attempts to ensure that private automobiles are driven by people with proper licenses never seem to get the traction that the current push to regulate tour bus operators has managed to generate. A bill introduced in the state legislature last session, which would have increased the penalties for drivers with suspended licenses who cause serious injuries, went nowhere. A 2009 City Council resolution on the issue was ignored at its hearing and died in committee. And of course, one important reform proposed by Governor Eliot Spitzer — allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license — was abandoned after two months of intense political opposition.

Over the last week and a half we’ve seen an extraordinary focus on the importance of licensing to ensuring traffic safety. If the goal is to save lives, however, rather than score political points in the wake of a high-profile tragedy, the focus needs to include private cars, not just tour buses.