Federal action on licenses may stall

Bills to "federalize" driver's licenses have stalled in Congress, but they're

cruising in the passing lane in many state legislatures.

Forty-one states considered laws to improve driver's license security

this legislative session, and 21 passed such laws, according to California

Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach). Only five states were working on the

issue before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, she said.

The prompt action by states may make congressional action to tighten

standards for driver's licenses unnecessary, Karnette and other witnesses

told a House transportation subcommittee Sept. 5.

"We don't need to 'federalize' driver's licenses," Kentucky Rep. John

Michael Weaver (D-Hardin) said. "States aren't waiting to take action, they're

acting."

Kentucky, for example, substantially changed its rules for issuing licenses

to foreign nationals. The state now checks visa information, sets driver's

licenses to expire when visas expire and requires annual license renewals.

Other states have added fingerprints and digitized information to their

licenses, and established new databases to verify identities.

The weakness of driver's licenses as reliable identification cards was

spotlighted by last September's terrorist attacks. Most of the terrorists

flashed driver's licenses to board the planes they hijacked and crashed

into the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington,

D.C.

That prompted the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators

to demand much stricter standards for issuing licenses. The association

also called for more linking of state and federal databases to check information

such as names, addresses, Social Security numbers, immigration status and

criminal records.

Two Virginia lawmakers responded with the Driver's License Modernization

Act, which would require states to adopt "smart" card driver's licenses

with computer chips that would store data, ranging from identification information

to credit card accounts.

Another bill urges states to tie license expiration dates for nonimmigrant

aliens to the expiration dates of their visas. A third bill drafted by U.S.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has not been introduced.

Now, with so many states adopting driver's license reforms, congressional

action "is unnecessary," the Council of State Governments and the National

Conference of State Legislatures said in a statement Karnette delivered

to the House Transportation Committee's Highways and Transit Subcommittee.

The two groups worry that new federal laws will "create a huge unfunded

mandate for states," and they fear federal legislation will "preempt states'

control of their driver's license program."

Various public interest groups also oppose federal driver's license

legislation, fearing federal standards for driver's licenses will lead to

a national ID.

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