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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Driving Us Crazy

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Sure, there are far more important issues in a proposed state budget that closes a $6.6 billion deficit, but how people drive in this state is something that affects most of us.

The budget decision I find most infuriating was the vote by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee to pass up saving more than $1.3 million by eliminating Wisconsin’s particularly dumb license plate requirements.

Anyone who moves here from another state is surprised to learn that Wisconsin requires front license plates and annual registration stickers on the rear plates. Gov. Jim Doyle proposed the common-sense elimination of the state’s superfluous multiple plates. The front plates serve little purpose other than quickly becoming unsightly, battered scraps of tin dangling from the fronts of our nice cars.

And the Milwaukee Police Department strongly supported elimination of the registration stickers on our plates to stop the theft of about 5,000 stickers and license plates every year.

But small-time police departments insist front plates and registration stickers serve some useful purpose in identifying vehicles involved in crimes—or, more likely, providing an excuse for stopping vehicles and writing tickets.

There is a serious training problem among police if officers are standing in front of moving vehicles to check license plates.

And police don’t really need to see a tiny sticker on a license plate these days to know whether a vehicle’s registration is up to date. They all have mobile computers in their squad cars to check not only the registration of any car they stop, but also any outstanding warrants on the driver or, if the NRA’s dream comes true, whether he might be carrying a deadly weapon.

More likely, police are simply looking for reasons to stop people so they can write tickets and increase their local revenue. Instead of keeping their eyes peeled for license plate stickers, most of us would prefer police simply stop people for driving erratically while intoxicated or otherwise endangering our lives by recklessly moving tons of steel at high speeds.

If police really need to see a sticker to know whether to stop a car, the state should give us one to put inside the rear windshield instead of out on the license plate where thousands can be stolen every year.

Making Roads Safer

The most important license that drivers in Wisconsin have aren’t the ones on the front and back of their cars. They are the ones in their wallets. That’s why the most important driving provision included in the budget was one by state Rep. Pedro Colon of Milwaukee to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain special driver’s licenses.

More than 11 million undocumented immigrants live in this country. Thousands live in Wisconsin. That would be an awful lot of untested motorists on our roads if we denied all of them the right to apply for driver’s licenses.

To be licensed, drivers are required to take tests demonstrating driving ability and a knowledge of traffic laws and safety regulations. They have to be able to see. Those are pretty important requirements.

Of course, Republicans have made hating immigrants a key part of their party’s angry-white-man political platform. So state Republicans are making claims that possessing even a noncitizen’s driver’s license would somehow allow undocumented immigrants to commit vote fraud and engage in other nefarious activities.

The primary reason most immigrants need legitimate driver’s licenses is the same reason the rest of us do: to get to work. And if they’re going to be driving out of necessity, we’re all better off if they’ve passed a driver’s test.

Other provisions in the proposed state budget relating to auto insurance could be far more troubling to all of us. It’s what happens when business lobbyists block needed reform and we end up with half a loaf.

One provision in the proposed state budget would increase the amount of coverage all of us who purchase automobile insurance are required to carry to cover injuries and property damage.

The previous minimum requirements fell far short of current costs of repairs for either human beings or their cars.

So far so good. But there is a basic problem with raising the amount of automobile insurance we’re required to buy. Wisconsin and New Hampshire are the only two states in the nation that do not require drivers to buy auto insurance at all.

That means there are lots of uninsured motorists out there on our roads. And by making it more expensive for low-income motorists to purchase auto insurance, we are guaranteeing even more uninsured drivers on our roads.

Yes, raise the minimum to a realistic level, but, as companion legislation, also require all drivers in Wisconsin to be insured so our lives and property are not put at risk from uninsured motorists.

While you’re at it, toss in a provision to get rid of that dumb front license plate.

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