The real numbers behind the I-300 auto impound initiative

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Denver's auto impound facility
If the I-300 ballot initiative passes in November 3, Denver police officers will be required to immediately impound any and every car they pull over where the person behind the wheel doesn't have a valid driver's license in their possession. But while the main target of the proposed law is illegal immigrants, it would also apply to bona fide drivers who don't have their ID on them simply because it was lost, misplaced or stolen.

According to the language of this initiative -- a tougher version of the I-100 impound law enacted last year -- if the driver cannot provide a license or "corroborating evidence" that they are who they say they are, then off to the city's impound yard the vehicle goes!

It remains unclear what police might be allowed to accept as "corroborating evidence," but I-300 proponent Dan Hayes explains in this week's cover story that a "Costco card" would probably do the trick, although there's nothing in the law that says that it would. With a required $2,500 bond and additional fees that can easily leap over $1,000 for an owner to retrieve a vehicle, the clear purpose of I-300 is to severely fuck anybody who'd dare start a car without a legitimate driver's license on their person.

But unlicensed drivers who also don't have car insurance certainly pose a risk to the rest of the driving public. So is this kind of harsh, zero-tolerance law is necessary? Let's look at the numbers.

In the official proponents' argument he submitted for both I-100 and I-300, Hayes writes that this type of impound measure is essential because some "data estimates that one out of every ten vehicles is being driven by an unlicensed driver and that they are responsible for about half of all the fatal accidents."

Those are some pretty striking figures. But when asked via e-mail for the sources of this data, Hayes sent this reply:

The one of ten drivers without a license I heard on cable news or perhaps regular news broadcast station recently. I believe I may be mistaken on the ½ the fatal accidents as that may be contributed to alcohol related deaths. Please note that a police poll in Denver Dist. 2 asked for by Jeanne Faatz, Dist. 2 councilman, revealed that 4 out of 10 vehicles pulled over by police in a two-month period were found to be operated by unlicensed drivers. Please contact her.

Okay -- only it turns out that Faatz, one of few politicians who support I-300, has never said that she requested or received an official "poll" of officers in her district on the subject of unlicensed drivers. Rather:

It wasn't so much any kind of statistic collected in any credible way. What we did was asked police officers in our area what their experience was. And, without even having a formal tic mark on each car they pulled over, they said that they felt that four-out-of-ten of the drivers they had pulled over were unlicensed.

While this anecdotal four-out-of-ten figure, based on the rough impressions of officers, may be suggestive of a problem with unlicensed drivers, it is hardly the kind of cold, hard data that should be used as the basis for a controversial public policy like I-300.

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