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 state Sen. Betty Karnette. 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 state Rep. Michael Weaver 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 highlighted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Most of the terrorists used driver's licenses to board the planes they then hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and a field in southwestern Pennsylvania.

That prompted the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators to demand stricter standards for issuing licenses. The association also called for linking more state and federal databases for checking 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 foreigners to the expiration dates of their visas.

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 would "create a huge unfunded mandate for states," and they fear federal legislation would "pre-empt states' control of their driver's license programs."

Various public interest groups also oppose federal driver's license legislation, fearing federal standards for driver's licenses would lead to a national ID card.

"Once a national driver's license is in place, it would be the ideal tool for organizing and tracking all types of data used by the government and private industry," said American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Katie Corrigan.

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