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Drivers' License Reform Still in the Making

A post-Sept. 11 push to reform the way drivers' licenses are issued has lost steam on Capitol Hill as Iraq and the economy top lawmakers' priority lists.

But motor vehicles groups and the nation's governors are forging ahead on this issue in the name of national security, particularly considering that an estimated 8 million illegal immigrants live in the United States.

"The fact that the drivers' license system is broken is not going to go away," said Jason King, spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. "It's not going to die."

At least four of the Sept. 11 hijackers were found to have obtained fraudulent drivers' licenses. After the terrorist attacks, lawmakers and other groups called for massive reform in the way licenses are issued, what documents are needed to obtain a license and security measures that should be taken to protect identification cards.

U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., introduced a bill in the spring that also called on states to set biometrics standards for the licenses. States would determine what documents -- such as a birth certificates or Social Security cards -- to accept to grant licenses and how the new biometrics-based licenses would be created. The bill also would give states $37 million and a certain percentage of federal highway funds to implement the system.

"Creating uniform standards for drivers' licenses will significantly reduce our country's vulnerabilities to future terrorist attacks," Moran said when he introduced the bill.

But with elections coming up and Congress scheduled to recess soon, it appears that the bill has languished, for this session anyway.

Spending measures, the homeland security bill and other priority items -- "all that stuff is being held up," said Moran spokesman Peter Lawson, adding that those issues come before license reform.

"We obviously would like something to happen in this term and we think it's important that Congress deal with this issue of driver license security. If it doesn't happen this term, we certainly think there will be a much bigger push in the next term," he added.

But while Congress remains inert, since the terrorist attacks, 21 states have enacted new laws to make it harder to get licenses, and legislation has been introduced in another 22 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The AAMVA is also working on recommendations for driver's license security that it plans to present to state motor vehicle associations at the beginning of the year.

"This is something we were working on long before 9/11," King said. "9/11 gave it a new platform."

Some of these recommendations will include establishing minimum uniform practices for what documents to accept as proof of the person's identity and cross-checking drivers' histories in real-time to see if someone has a driving record in another state. AAMVA will also recommend states use technology like fingerprint or facial-recognition biometrics on the licenses. Holograms are another option.

States should also increase penalties and fines for those who make or use fake IDs, AAMVA suggests, and more training should be given to license issuers on how to identify a fake document.

"We believe the public wants a secure driver's license," King said.

The nation's governors last week agreed that they would come together to look at steps to take to secure drivers' licenses.

A task force created by the National Governors Association will work with other groups like the National Council of State Legislatures and Council of State Governments to help states learn from each other what license security systems and procedures work best.

"Since 9/11, states, all levels of government and the private sector have sprung into action," Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a member of President Bush's Homeland Security Advisory Council, said in a statement. "But no matter how well-intentioned or how well-funded these efforts are, it won't make much of a difference if they're not all connected and communicating."

But while states say they don't need a federal mandate telling them what to do, they do need some cash. And if some general guidelines come down from above, states are more likely to comply, King said.

"We do believe the financial burden that comes with strengthening our practices should not fall solely on the shoulders on the states. That's where we believe there's a federal role for financial assistance," while states should make the laws, he said.