In early May, Florida's Pinellas County became the third county to issue the state's new high-tech driver's license, which contains more than 17 layers of security. State officials say the license is virtually impossible to counterfeit: Some anti-fraud features are viewable only under ultraviolet light, while others can only be detected using special equipment that teases out imbedded digital information.
Unfortunately, this sophisticated offering would not have stopped the recent spate of CDLs issued in Florida to unqualified drivers, because the licenses were issued by corrupt state motor vehicle workers. In this latest CDL scandal, federal and state officials arrested 52 people who sold thousands of licenses to those who were unqualified because they did not have the proper driving skills, identification or legal immigrant status. Of these, as many as 40 were CDLs with hazmat endorsements, according to officials of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which spearheaded the operation.
The scheme involved third-party driving schools that received payoffs of up to $3000 from applicants to supply bogus documents to motor vehicle examiners who then issued the licenses for bribes of $100 to $200 each.
This relationship is the crux of the problem, according to Dept. of Transportation Inspector General Kenneth Mead. In testimony last month he told Congress: “Over the past five years we have investigated and prosecuted CDL fraud schemes in 23 states and found over 8,000 CDLs that were issued to drivers through corrupt state or state-approved testing processes. We have found too many cases where, in exchange for a bribe, an examiner will pass applicants without a test or will supply test answers to applicants.”
Although much of the government's latest emphasis on illegal licensing is aimed at thwarting terrorists using trucks as bombs, Mead points out that none of the cases his office has examined even had a whiff of terrorism. Nonetheless, phony CDLs have caused deaths. “For example, a driver who caused a fatal crash in 2003, which killed a family of five in Pennsylvania, had been tested by a third-party examiner who was convicted of fraudulently certifying CDL test results,” Mead told lawmakers.
As long as legitimate but corrupt motor vehicles examiners illegally issue licenses to unqualified people, the solution remains elusive because the licenses themselves pass muster with other law enforcement officers during ad-hoc checks. The answer, according to Mead and others, is to step up internal audits of motor vehicle agencies. Internal audits triggered almost all of the federal and state investigations, albeit not quickly enough to keep drivers from receiving their licenses.
Others suggest that the system of third-party examiners should be scrapped, says Don Hess, vice chairman of the Professional Truck Driver Institute and Director Transportation and Public Safety Programs at John Wood Community College in Quincy, IL.
As this issue continues to make headlines, Congress has added another wrinkle. Last May, within an appropriations bill for the Iraq war, an amendment passed without debate requiring that within three years all applicants must supply proof of citizenship to get a driver's license. States also must switch to a nationwide standard license with an easily swiped-and-read magnetic strip that contains the applicant's personal information. Some 600 civil rights groups opposed the measures because they see it as the beginning of a national ID card and further erosion of civil liberties.
Although the new requirements are aimed at preventing terrorists from obtaining driver's licenses, they still do nothing to prevent corrupt motor vehicle workers from issuing them. In addition, they will raise the price of licenses and slow the process.