What's A Driver's License For?

Not for proving you know how to drive.

In times past, everybody understood the purpose of a driver's license - it certified that the holder knew how to drive a vehicle of some sort.

Over the years, driver's licenses evolved into something for which they were never really intended: a formal, government-certified identification.  That usage has reached the point where states have to issue non-driver IDs for people who can't drive but who need to be able to identify themselves to the TSA in order to get on airplanes.

The ability to show that a job seeker is able to drive properly is so important that there's a lively market in fake American driver's licenses.  The July 2007 issue of Reader's Digest had a story "License to Kill" on pp. 37-39 which said that in 2006, the Dept of Transportation identified 15,000 "suspect" license holders in 27 states.

The feds found that illegals can get their driving skills falsely "certified" for $500-$1,500.  A number of accidents have been traced to illegals who got jobs as drivers based on fake drivers' licenses.

Thus, history would suggest that the main purpose of a driver's license is supposed to be to show that someone can drive a vehicle safely.  This is so well understood that several states settled lawsuits when their employees issued licenses without verifying drivers' skills, either because of incompetence or bribery.

It turns out that in Japan, at least, possession of a drivers' license has little to do with the ability to drive.  Reuters reported on June 10 that a 20-year veteran fire-fighter in Japan lost his job when it was found that he was driving fire trucks and ambulances without a drivers' license.

Shigeru Sawasaki, a city official, explained that the fire fighter had been showing his father's driver's license while covering the photo with his finger.  Reuters wrote:

The monthly inspection of driver's licenses started last year and before that, the fire-fighter had filed a fake license registration number to Takaoka City in 1981, Sawasaki added.  Between April 2003 and June 2008, the fire-fighter, who told city officials he had gone to a driving school but failed the writing exam, drove ambulances 309 times and fire trucks 97 times, Sawasaki said.  "In terms of his driving, he has not been in any accidents whatsoever," Sawasaki said, adding that there had been no problem with his work attitude either.

Here we have a perfectly capable, 20-year veteran fireman who's been fired, not because he can't do his job, but because he doesn't have a paper proving that he is permitted to do his job.

The fire fighter said that he had failed the written exam for driving.  Failing the exam didn't mean that he couldn't drive; he'd driven emergency vehicles 400 times in the last 5 years without any accidents whatsoever.  What does this say about the exam?  It's plain that the exam is irrelevant to determining a person's actual ability to drive; all the exam does is create jobs for bureaucrats.

The New York Times reported recently that the head of the city Buildings Department has been arrested for taking bribes to pass crane inspections and to ensure that people pass various examinations.

The department says that none of his alleged crimes have anything to do with the recent spate of crane accidents in the city; rumor hath that the most recent crane collapse was due to a defective weld in a part imported from China.

Could it be that, like the Japanese driver's license exam, New York City building inspections have nothing to do with actual safety?  Could our bureaucrats be imposing irrelevant requirements just to create jobs for themselves?  Perish the thought!

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
So do you support driver's licenses or not? I definitely think people should be tested for if they can drive. Cars are dangerous objects. Look at all the old people that get into accidents. I'm not clear as to whether you think we should dump them entirely or what.
July 2, 2008 7:50 AM
We CLEARLY don't want drivers on the road who can't drive. That implies some sort of driver's license, but the question arises of how to administer them. Our present system doesn't ensure that the holder of a license is actually able to drive because state employees sell fake licenses as noted in the Reader's Digest. IDs aren't much good either; the 911 guys bought theirs, too.

The Japanese fire fighter illustrates the opposite side of the coin with a man who was CLEARLY able to drive perfectly well but who was not able to pass the examination.

There is a perpetual conflict between certification and competence. Many states require licenses for, say, barbers and cosmetologists in the name of "protecting the public." The most significant effect of such licenses, of course, is to make it harder to get into the business which drives up costs to the public.

My favorite example is the fact that shipyards trained newbies to do electrical wiring in ships in 90 days whereas modern apprenticeship programs make a learner spend 4 years to get a license to do household wiring.
July 2, 2008 10:28 AM
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