EDITORIAL: A safety issue: Driver’s licenses should be made available to state visitors as well

The Texas State Auditor’s Office recently released an audit report of the Department of Public Safety and found that agency might have issued thousands of driver’s licenses without making the proper checks to ensure that the applicants had provided necessary documents, including Social Security numbers or proof of residency in the state.

Apparently, some documents accompanying the license information didn’t include evidence that the applicant had passed the mandatory road skills test before being issued the license.

That is cause for concern; either the agency needs to improve its records retention procedures or some licensed drivers never proved that they can actually drive (Some drivers probably swear that half of the people on the roads these days might have gotten such licenses in error, but we doubt the number is significant). But while driver’s licenses are perhaps the most popular form of identification used in the state, they should not be restricted to Texas residents.

In border states such as our own — whether they border Mexico or Canada — some drivers might not be permanent residents, but still have reason to use our roads. The Rio Grande Valley in particular is a popular vacation destination for people from other countries.

Many Mexican citizens own or lease property on South Padre Island for use during Semana Santa and other holidays. Others come on business-related trips and use our roads often enough to warrant the issuance of driving credentials. Some Canadian residents also come down to enjoy the Valley’s warmer climes during winter months. It’s reasonable to assume that many of these welcome visitors buy autos, boats and recreational vehicles to use while they’re here.

Seasonal residents — such as farm workers, out-of-state university students, even professional athletes — also might have reason to have nonresident or temporary licenses.

Allowing non-residents to secure driver’s licenses could encourage such part-time Texans and visitors to get them, and would help ensure that more of those who are sharing our roads have proven their knowledge of our signs and laws, and demonstrated their skills to a DPS official.

Such allowances wouldn’t preclude the licenses’ use as proof of residency or citizenship. such as for voting. The format of today’s licenses already has distinctions for different driving classes, such as commercial or provisional, as well as conditions and restrictions that include the need for glasses or the additional qualification to ride a motorcycle. Adding residency or citizenship or immigration status would be just one more piece of information that could be added to the license.

The DPS started requiring applicants to show proof of legal residency a decade ago, in response to the growing anti-immigration sentiment that continues today. The state enacted legislation to make the requirement official in 2011.

The audit should prompt DPS to review its procedures and improve its documentation and alerts for missing data. But it also should encourage lawmakers to review the need to restrict issuance of drivers’ licenses and exclude many people who might not be permanent residents but have reason to apply for them.