Column: Driver licenses for all: An inclusive policy to drive Michigan forward

December 20, 2019 9:09 am

Pro-immigration protest outside the second Democratic debate | Ken Coleman

We know how much the roads matter in Michigan. But how often do we think about sidewalks?

It may seem out of place to be talking about sidewalks in a column about driver licenses, the drivers who have them, our cars and our roads. But one particular component of a sidewalk (or should I say, missing from a sidewalk?) can help us think about the benefits of inclusive policies, such as allowing all Michigan residents — including undocumented immigrants and those who cannot prove their legal presence—the ability to obtain a driver license.

The sidewalk element I’m referring to is a curb cut. These small architectural additions create a more accessible sidewalk by removing part of the curb. Michigan’s own Kalamazoo is reportedly the first city to have installed “curb ramps” in 1945. 

Later championed nationally in the late 1960s and early 1970s by disability advocates in Berkeley, Calif., curb cuts benefit all pedestrians and those using the sidewalk: parents pushing strollers, runners, movers carrying heavy boxes and more.

As described by Angela Glover Blackwell, Founder in Residence of PolicyLink — a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity — curb cuts demonstrate how inclusive policies are not a zero-sum game. I can’t say it any better than Glover does here, with my emphasis added:

“There’s an ingrained societal suspicion that intentionally supporting one group hurts another. That equity is a zero-sum game. In fact, when the nation targets support where it is needed most — when we create the circumstances that allow those who have been left behind to participate and contribute fully — everyone wins. 

The corollary is also true: When we ignore the challenges faced by the most vulnerable among us, those challenges, magnified many times over, become a drag on economic growth, prosperity, and national well-being.”

Allowing all Michigan residents to obtain a driver license, regardless of the ability to prove one’s legal presence, is a perfect example of the “curb-cut effect” — that is, an inclusive policy designed to benefit one group that would benefit everyone. 

In fact, this policy was already in effect in Michigan until 2008; in late 2007, Attorney General Mike Cox issued an opinion on the issue and the Michigan Legislature took action to codify this opinion into law. Legislation to reinstate this policy has been introduced.

The Drive SAFE (Safety, Access, Freedom and the Economy) bills, introduced by state Sens. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) and Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), along with state Reps. Alex Garza (D-Taylor) and Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids), would bring Michigan law up to speed with that of 14 other states that allow residents who meet all other requirements to obtain a driver license. 

We know that the Drive SAFE bills will restore dignity to tens of thousands of residents in Michigan and return a right that previously existed, allowing them to accomplish everyday activities more easily and engage in Michigan’s economy without fear. Plus, we can also look at the additional benefits — including economic—to other residents of Michigan, including current citizens. 

The Michigan League for Public Policy has outlined these benefits and included more information on outcomes from other states with similar policies in a report called Taking Our Foot of the Brakes (with an accompanying fact sheet). Here are some highlights of providing driver’s licenses for all residents:  

  • Over the course of three years, 55,000 Michiganders would apply for a driver license, leading to 20,000 new vehicle purchases. These new licenses and vehicles would boost state revenue by $13.5 million and contribute $12 million in recurring revenue, $9 million of which would be from sales and gas taxes related to vehicle ownership. Over the course of 10 years, this policy would generate almost $100 million for the state. This means more revenue for programs and priorities we all care about and benefit from. 
  • To register a passenger vehicle in Michigan, one must have auto insurance. Roads are safer for everyone and accidents are resolved more smoothly when more drivers have passed a standardized driving test and are insured.
  • Michiganders would see their annual auto insurance premiums go down by approximately $20, because when more drivers are insured, everyone’s cost of auto insurance decreases. Although this is a modest decrease, that is enough to pay for a car wash in the thick of Michigan winter or to keep a spare headlight in your car! 
  • Allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver licenses would support Michigan’s booming agricultural industry and other local economies. In addition, access to a driver license means access to amenities and opportunities beyond one’s immediate community, including new businesses and higher-paying jobs.

Reinstating the ability for all Michigan residents to apply for a driver’s license would not only have a profound impact on the undocumented community. Just as inclusive policies like curb cuts benefit all pedestrians and those using our sidewalks, not just individuals with disabilities, Drive SAFE would impact other Michiganders’ businesses, pocketbooks and safety.

Other groups like the Michigan Education Association, Michigan Nurses Association, and the Oakland, Kalamazoo and Washtenaw county commissions recognize that, and the Michigan Legislature should, too. Greater dignity and identity for all, improved state revenue and increased local commerce are real changes policymakers should care about — not who it is waiting in line with us at the Secretary of State. 

The Michigan League for Public Policy is a part of the Drive Michigan Forward coalition, which is made up of immigrants and their allies. 

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Simon Marshall-Shah
Simon Marshall-Shah

Simon Marshall-Shah is a state policy fellow at the Michigan League for Public Policy. He previously worked in Washington, D.C,. at the Association for Community Affiliated Plans (ACAP), providing federal policy and advocacy support to nonprofit, Medicaid health plans (Safety Net Health Plans) related to the ACA Marketplaces.