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Back to Archives | Back to September 2003 Contents 

Reduce Traffic Collisions by Targeting Unlicensed Drivers

Terry Holderness, Captain, Fontana, California, Police Department

Photographs courtesy Fontanta Police Department
Photographs courtesy Fontanta Police Department
Photographs courtesy Fontanta Police Department
Photographs courtesy Fontanta Police Department
Photographs courtesy Fontanta Police Department
olice agencies around the world devote significant resources to reducing traffic collisions. One popular strategy is to, first, identify locations that have high numbers of collisions, second, pinpoint the violations that are the primary collision factors in a substantial number of those accidents, and, third, cite offenders at targeted locations for those violations.

Another method is to suspend or revoke the licenses of those drivers identified as high risks-persons who have been convicted of driving while intoxicated or received a significant number of other citations. Research conducted in 2002 by the California Department of Motor Vehicles has shown that drivers who have a history of citations or DUI arrests are four times more likely to be involved in collisions than other drivers.1 The department also found that at any given time there are more than a million persons in California who have suspended or revoked driver's licenses.

Obviously, the removal of a million high-risk drivers from the roadways should reduce the number of traffic collisions.

The major limiting factor on the effectiveness of suspensions as a collision reduction strategy is that a large number of high-risk drivers ignore the suspensions and continue to drive. A 1988 study found that 75 percent of persons who have their driver's licenses suspended continue to drive, although they tend to drive less often and are more careful while driving.2 Drivers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked are also 3.7 times more likely to be involved in a fatal collision than a licensed driver.3 The California Department of Motor Vehicles found that 8.8 percent of the drivers on the road at sampled locations had suspended licenses and 3.3 percent were unlicensed.4

Suspending driver's licenses also does nothing to address the problem caused by unlicensed drivers. Although drivers with suspended licenses are more likely to be on the roads than unlicensed drivers (8.8 percent versus 3.3 percent), an unlicensed driver is more dangerous. A 1997 study found that persons who have never had driver's licenses were 4.9 times more likely than licensed drivers to be involved in fatal collisions.5

A 2000 study found that in the United States 20 percent of all fatal collisions involved one or more drivers who were unlicensed or driving with a suspended or revoked license.6 The title of that study, "Unlicensed to Kill," sums up the public safety issue created by unlicensed or suspended-license drivers. That study also found that people who were either unlicensed or driving with a suspended license were 66.4 times more likely to be hit-and-run drivers than people with valid licenses.

Vehicle-Based Enforcement Programs Get Results

In order to reduce the number of drivers on the road without valid driver's licenses, several states have tried to impose sanctions against vehicles driven by those persons. The sanctions include taking vehicle registration tags so the offender is easier to spot when driving, requiring vehicle interlock devices that prevent people from driving after drinking alcohol, and enacting laws that require vehicles to be impounded, immobilized, or seized.

In 1988 Minnesota enacted a law that required that the courts confiscate and destroy the license plate of any vehicle registered to a person who had three or more convictions for DUI in a five-year period or four or more convictions in a 10-year period. Few judges applied the sanctions, so the law was changed to make it administrative in nature, meaning police officers could implement its provisions. One study found that after the law became administrative, widespread implementation of its provisions significantly reduced recidivism among many DUI offenders.7

In 1989 police in Manitoba, Canada, and Portland, Oregon, began impounding the vehicles of persons caught driving with suspended licenses. Manitoba's program was associated with a significant reduction in recidivism rates of suspended drivers.8

Portland's program was even more effective. Portland police found that drivers who had their vehicles impounded were 50 percent less likely to recidivate than drivers who were cited but did not have their vehicles impounded.9 Portland's program also allowed for the forfeiture of impounded vehicles. Because of the high cost of forfeiture proceedings, most vehicles were released without being forfeited. It is interesting to note that Portland police did not find a difference between the recidivism rates of persons who had their vehicle forfeited and persons whose vehicles were simply impounded.   

Vehicle-Based Enforcement Works in California

In 1994 the California legislature passed two bills allowing vehicle impoundment and forfeiture of vehicles operated by subjects driving while unlicensed or with suspended licenses. Senate Bill 1758 allowed peace officers to seize and impound for 30 days vehicles driven by a person whose license has been suspended or revoked or a person who has never been issued a license. Police can impound the vehicle whether the driver is the registered owner of the vehicle or not.

Under the law, the impoundment of the vehicle is considered administrative in nature and does not require a judicial hearing. A subject who has his or her vehicle impounded is entitled to an administrative hearing, but the hearing officer can be anyone appointed by the impounding agency. This means that the agency can conduct the hearings with existing personnel and is not required to incur the expense of paying for either a court hearing or an independent hearing officer.

The other law, Assembly Bill 3148, authorized the forfeiture of vehicles driven by certain repeat offenders. The law places a significant burden on prosecutors, who must obtain court permission for the forfeiture and pay the cost of the hearing. Few police agencies and prosecutor's offices have attempted to implement forfeiture under this provision.

Two years after Senate Bill 1758 became law, the California Department of Motor Vehicles commissioned a study on the effectiveness of the law as a deterrent to driving with a suspended license or without a license in California. The study found that first-time offenders who had their vehicles impounded were 18 percent less likely to have additional convictions than those who received citations but did not have their vehicles impounded.

According to the study, repeat offenders who had their vehicles impounded were 22 percent less likely to have additional convictions than those who received citations but did not have their vehicles impounded. The study also found that first-time offenders were 25 percent less likely to be involved in a subsequent collision if their vehicles were impounded. Repeat offenders were 38 percent less likely to be involved in a subsequent collision if their vehicles were impounded.10

Fresno Program Reduces Fatality and Injury Crashes

In 1996 Fresno received a two-year grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety. Through this grant, Fresno assigned five full-time officers to target unlicensed drivers or drivers operating with suspended licenses. Those officers were also required to present educational programs targeted at unlicensed drivers and serve arrest warrants on subjects wanted for license violations. One deputy district attorney was hired and assigned to prosecute offenders.

Fresno emphasized criminal prosecution and warrant service. By seeking to increase penalties and conviction rates and serving arrest warrants, Fresno attempted to do more to the violator then just issue a citation and impound the offender's vehicle.

The Fresno Police Department reported that during the first year of the grant, collisions causing injuries and deaths were reduced by 30 percent. During the second year fatality and injury crashes increased by 12 percent. In spite of that second-year increase, there was still a significant overall reduction in the number of collisions causing injury or death in the two-year period.11

Fontana Launches Its F-Stop Program

In 2000 Fontana received a similar grant to develop and implement a program called F-Stop (Fontana Serious Traffic Offender Program). With a population of 138,000, Fontana is roughly one-third the size of Fresno (population 411,000).

Fontana's program, which included the hiring of two full-time police officers, is more limited in scope than Fresno's. It focuses on citing violators and impounding their vehicles. The program does not seek to increase other penalties and conviction rates or serve warrants. Instead, the F-Stop program is using its additional resources to conduct driver's license checkpoints and courthouse sting operations, which were not part of Fresno's program.

The program has three components:

  • Checkpoints: Twice a month the department sets up a roadblock and randomly checks drivers to determine whether they have a valid license to operate a motor vehicle. The author of a study of California's 30-day impoundment law had suggested that driver's license checkpoints could help increase enforcement and deterrence.12
  • Courthouse sting operations: During a courthouse sting operation, a plain-clothes officer sits in the courtroom during traffic court. When a person comes into court and pleads guilty to driving without a license or with a suspended license, the officer gives the person's description to uniformed officers outside the courtroom. If the person then attempts to drive away from courthouse, the uniformed officers stop him or her and impound the vehicle. These operations target the most serious offenders-those who have multiple counts of driving without a license.
  • Zero-tolerance enforcement: Using the funds from the California Office of Traffic Safety grant, the department hired two full-time motor officers to stop unlicensed drivers and impound vehicles. The officers visited patrol briefings to make sure all Fontana police officers understood the laws involving impounded vehicles driven by unlicensed drivers and that all officers were aware of Fontana's F-Stop philosophy: no license, no vehicles, no exceptions.

Fontana Wins Public Support for Aggressive Enforcement

Other agencies that have tried targeting unlicensed and high-risk drivers with vehicle-based sanctions have had problems with community reaction to the police towing and impounding many vehicles. To counter that potential problem, the F-Stop program incorporated a strong education and community-relations components, including the following examples:

  • Good driver giveaways: The department awarded good drivers with certificates for meals at local restaurants.
  • Motor Santa Clause program: Before Christmas 2001, one of our officers became Motor Santa. As Motor Santa, assisted by two other motor officers dressed as elves, the officer stopped good drivers and gave them free Thanksgiving turkeys. Motor Santa also led the city's Christmas parade in an effort to get out the F-Stop program message.
  • Incarceration station: The department built a car-sized jail of PVC pipe, installed it in a public place with an impounded car locked inside, and displayed a banner with the F-Stop motto: "No License = No Vehicles = No Exceptions."

During the grant program period, the department invited media representatives to cover and publicize the police department's program. Grant officers and other members of our traffic unit participated in or conducted programs at more than 50 community events that drew a total of more than 30,000 people. These events ranged from school and community safety fairs, where the agency set up information booths, to the Fontana Days Parade, where the department showcased the Motor Santa program. As a result of these efforts, more than 65 positive stories about F-Stop appeared in area newspapers and magazines or aired on area television programs.

During the course of the grant, both the community at large and the city council were supportive of the program and the philosophy of targeting high-risk and unlicensed drivers using vehicle-based sanctions. The department towed almost 11,000 vehicles in a two-year period and received almost no complaints from the community.

Success: Enforcement Up, Collisions Down

The Fontana Police Department launched F-Stop in September 2000 and ended it in September 2002. To measure the program's effectiveness, the department compared enforcement and crash data from calendar year 1998 (the last year for which traffic crash statistics were available) with data from the two consecutive 12-month periods after the grant officers began work on the grant program: September 2000-August 2001, and September 2001-August 2002. Police were pleased with the results:

  • During the first year of the program, impoundments increased by 100 percent.
  • During the second year of the grant, impoundments were down slightly but were still 85 percent higher than the 1998 total.
  • During the two-year program, Fontana impounded 10,996 vehicles.

Of even greater significance than enforcement statistics were the outcomes related to traffic collisions. When compared with the base year of 1998, injury traffic collisions were down significantly in all categories, in spite of a 24.2 percent increase in Fontana's population from 1998 to 2002. The following are a few examples of program outcomes related to collisions:

  • Traffic collisions during the first 12-month period of the grant project were down 18 percent from 1998 totals.
  • Injury traffic collisions during the second 12-month period of the grant project were down 21 percent from 1998 totals.
  • Injury traffic collisions per capita in last 12-month period of the grant program were 38 percent lower than injury traffic collisions per capita in 1998.
  • Hit-and-run injury traffic collisions in the second 12-month period of the grant program were down 31 percent from 1998.
  • Hit-and-run injury traffic collisions per capita were 52 percent lower during the second 12-month period of the grant program than they were in 1998.♦

1California Department of Motor Vehicles, "Negligent Driver Post-licensing Control Research,", February 28, 2003.
2H. L. Ross and P. Gonzales, "Effects of License Revocation on Drunk-Driving Offenders," Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. 20, no. 5 (1988): 359-391.
3D. J. DeYoung, R. C. Peck, and C.J. Helander, "Estimating the Exposure and Fatal Crash Rates of Suspended/Revoked and Unlicensed Drivers in California," Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. 29, no. 1 (1997): 17-23.
4R. C. Peck, "Unlicensed Driving: A Major California Safety Problem" (1997), retrieved May 9, 2002,
5DeYoung, Peck, and Helander, "Estimating the Exposure."
6Texas Transportation Institute, Safety and Structural Systems Division, "Unlicensed to Kill," by L. I. Griffin and S. DeLaZarda (College Station, Texas: 2000).
7A. Rodgers, "Effects of Minnesota's License Plate Impoundment Law on Recidivism of Multiple DWI Violators," Alcohol, Drugs, and Driving, vol. 10, no. 2 (1994): 127-134.
8Traffic Injury Research Foundation of Canada, "Evaluation of Administrative License Suspension and Vehicle Impoundment Programs in Manitoba," by D. J. Beirness, H. M. Simpson, and D. R. Matthew (Ottawa, Ontario: 1997).
9I. B. Crosby, "Portland's Asset Forfeiture Program: The Effectiveness of Vehicle Seizure in Reducing Rearrest among 'Problem' Drunk Drivers," paper delivered during Reed College Public Policy Workshop, Portland, Oregon, 1995.
10California Department of Motor Vehicles, "Evaluation of the Specific Deterrent Effect of Vehicle Impoundment on Suspended, Revoked, and Unlicensed Drivers in California," RSS-97-171, by D. J. DeYoung (Sacramento, Calif.: 1997).
11Fresno Police Department, "Traffic Offender Program Final Report" (Fresno, Calif.: 1999).
12California Department of Motor Vehicles, "Evaluation of the Specific Deterrent Effect."



From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 9, September 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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