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License bill is only half-right

It's not the role of the Oregon Legislature to decide immigration policy for the nation, but state lawmakers do have a responsibility to ensure safety on Oregon's roads.

We believe lawmakers should have concentrated more on safety and a little less on illegal immigration when they passed a much-touted driver's license law last week. The legislation, while a necessary first step, takes the state only halfway toward a practical solution on the licensing issue.

Even though they fell short of a complete answer, lawmakers were right to take up this matter in the February special session. Oregon is one of only a handful of states that haven't required applicants to show proof of legal residence to obtain a driver's license. And there is evidence that the lax law has been abused not only by people who enter the country illegally, but also by identity thieves.

Give greater weight to safety

Viewed that way, it's no wonder the new rule cruised through the Legislature. After all, why should the state provide driving privileges to people who break the law?

No politician would want to hedge in answering that question during an election year and risk enduring the wrath of those who oppose illegal immigration. But the truth is, there's a good reason to let illegal immigrants get licenses: It's safety.

Oregon's new law, which goes into effect in July, will keep some illegal immigrants off the road. But many others will continue to drive without licenses. That means they won't have to prove that they have the skills needed to operate a vehicle or that they have insurance.

That grim reality is one reason that some (though not all) police officials opposed the new license requirements. And it's the reason that Gov. Ted Kulongoski last year floated the idea of a 'driving privilege' card that would allow its holders to drive without proving residency.

Such cards, also known as 'driving only' cards, cannot be used as legal identification. You can't use them to get past airport security. You can't use them to get government benefits. You can only use them to drive.

Last month, state auditors in Utah looked at how the card was working for the 35,000 residents who use it there (the state adopted the two-tiered license system in 2005). They found the card was succeeding on a couple of fronts, including this key statistic: 76 percent of those with driving privilege cards had insurance.

Revisit this issue in 2009

Many Oregonians will find fault with an effort to improve highway safety by offering illegal immigrants 'driving only' cards. They will say the immigrants should not be here in the first place and therefore should not be provided any privilege - such as permission to drive.

We agree that the matter of illegal immigration must be solved. If not, this will become a crisis that divides America - including U.S. citizens, legal immigrants and illegals - into camps not only of debate, but also, eventually, of violence. Yet the immigration issue is a federal burden that requires international partnerships from nations such as Mexico.

Highway safety, by contrast, is a state responsibility. We think safety can be improved by Oregon's requiring all drivers to pass the same tests and provide proof of insurance.

Once the mounting heat of this year's election cools, Oregon lawmakers should use the 2009 legislative session to improve highway safety by once again addressing the matter of who is allowed to drive.