Unlicensed to Kill


Unlicensed motorists driving recklessly have been killing kids on the streets of Boston lately. Fritz Philogene, who turned 18 the day before, was killed on May 19, 2015. Less than 3 weeks later, 8 year old Yadielys DeLeon was also killed by an unlicensed reckless driver. A drunk, speeding unlicensed driver killed Brianna Rosales, 7, while walking on a sidewalk in November 2013. She was walking home from school.

According to research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety report Unlicensed To Kill series, unlicensed drivers are “significantly more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than are validly-licensed drivers”, and account for about 1 in every 5 driving related killing. There is an astoundingly large death toll due to unlicensed drivers: about 20 people a day, in the USA alone.

Technology is available today to begin addressing this pressing safety problem. This technology is mature, inexpensive and easy to implement. The solution I propose is to move to a smart-chip enabled “intelligent license”. Cars equipped to read an intelligent license would not allow vehicle operation unless presented a valid intelligent license.

A smart chip, bottom center, contains data that communicates via card reader

Here’s how the system would work. All new licenses would be equipped with a smart chip, like the Common Access Card used by the military for secure door and computer access. License holders would also choose a PIN code. New cars would be equipped with a card reader and PIN pad of some sort (already, many new cars have interactive touch panel interfaces on the dash board). The license would contain information that the car would read (e.g., license expiration date, revocation status, etc.). The car would require a current valid license before allowing the driver to start the car.

Once implemented, this would completely eliminate killings and serious injuries caused by unlicensed drivers, because there simply would be no more unlicensed drivers.

Note, this system would augment rather than replace the traditional ignition key. While the intelligent license represents permission from society to drive, the car key is still how we enforce permission from the owner to use the car.

Other benefits

Young drivers often have “probationary licenses” with restrictions. This is intended to mitigate difficult driving conditions for inexperienced drivers. Restrictions include things like allowed hours of operation, maximum number of passengers, cell phone restrictions, and more. An intelligent license can help enforce these restrictions and more. For starters, the car radio could be completely locked out and the GPS/navigation system could require the car to be in “park” for probationary drivers, reducing driver distraction. Nighttime driving restrictions could also be automatically enforced (GPS equipped cars can have an awareness of time that can’t be overridden by manually resetting a clock). This is a naive discussion of the issue, intended to explore the opportunities; real world implementation would require careful consideration.

What about emergencies?

A critic of this intelligent license idea might counter that in rare cases, an unlicensed driver might need to drive to save a life. Take for example an unlicensed driver visiting his elderly father who starts to exhibit heart attack symptoms (hopefully people can come up with better scenarios than this). Somehow calling 911 is not an option, so our unlicensed driver needs borrow his father’s car to save his life. I would suggest that a well-implemented intelligent licensing system would allow cars to be operated in “emergency mode”. Emergency mode would allow a car to operate, with restrictions. For the sake of argument, let’s assume turning on the hazard lights activates emergency mode.

So back to our example, our unlicensed driver is trying to help with a medical emergency. After buckling his father into the passenger seat, our friend, puts the key in the ignition, presses the “hazard” lights to activate emergency mode, and start’s the car. The combination of no valid license plus hazard light activation allows the car to operate. But much like the “valet mode” of some cars, there are restrictions. The radio is disabled. Maximum speed is governed to 60. Acceleration is tightly capped. Finally, since the hazards are active, a passing policeman can pull the car over to see if they can assist with the emergency (e.g., use police radio to summon an ambulance).

Implementation: timeline and Cost

So how much will this cost? Smart card readers cost as little as $10 and the cards no more than $2. Once integrated into a car’s design and the state’s licensing systems, the cost would undoubtedly drop even further.

Implementation would take some time. It would not ne economically feasible to retrofit existing cars. This would be something, just like air bags and automatic vehicle tire pressure monitoring, which has to be built in to new cars and be implemented as new cars replace older ones. The typical lifespan of a private motor vehicle is 11 years, meaning the vast majority of cars are off the road about 11 years after they are sold.

I suppose if we were to implement intelligent licensing right now, we’d see little change for several years (I don’t imagine many unlicensed drivers are buying new cars off the lot), followed by a steep decline in unlicensed driver related traffic violence, then at about the 11 year mark, we’d see grandfathered used cars selling at a premium until they are no longer available at all.

When 20 people a day (every day) are being killed, among them children walking on the sidewalk, I say it’s time to make the cultural, legal and simple technological changes necessary to bring this problem to an end.

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