Unlicensed Drivers of Private Cars a Far Bigger Threat Than Tour Bus Drivers

Last week’s tragic bus crash in the Bronx, which left 15 dead, has captured the attention of New York’s media and political elite. Since the crash took place nine days ago, the New York Times has published no fewer than seven articles updating its readers on every detail and development.

Peter and Lillian Sabados were killed by a driver who had racked up 29 license suspensions. The calls for stricter licensing procedures following their deaths were far less numerous than the calls for reforming the tour bus industry following last week's fatal casino bus crash in the Bronx.

Much of the attention has centered around whether Ophadell Williams, the bus’s driver, should have been licensed to operate the bus in the first place. Governor Andrew Cuomo took a break from high-stakes budget negotiations to order an investigation of Williams’ driving and criminal records and Senator Chuck Schumer has called for the state DMV to audit every driver’s license held by a tour bus driver. Said Schumer in a WNYC report, “Looking after a crash, or a spot check while the driver is behind the wheel, that’s good, but what would be better is preventing these people who shouldn’t be driving, from getting behind the wheel in the first place.”

Schumer’s focus on prevention must be cold comfort to the family of Peter and Lillian Sabados. The elderly couple were killed in a hit-and-run crash while walking to Thanksgiving Mass in 2009. Their killer, Allmir Lekperic, had amassed at least 29 license suspensions in the three years beforehand. Any attempt to prevent Lekperic from getting behind the wheel in the first place was clearly ineffective.

You’d never know it from watching the news this week, but there are far more Allmir Lekperics in the world than deadly bus drivers. Each year, around 375 people are killed in bus crashes nationwide, according to a 2009 report by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration [PDF]. The bulk of those deaths come from crashes involving school buses and transit buses; charter and tour buses were involved in only 396 out of 2,629 fatalities between 1999 and 2005, around 57 a year.

Compare that to the number of people killed in crashes with improperly licensed drivers. One in five fatal traffic crashes nationwide involves at least one driver without a valid license, according to research by the AAA Foundation [PDF]. Those crashes killed an average of 8,801 people each year.

Crashes involving unlicensed drivers, therefore, killed more than 154 times as many people as all crashes involving charter buses.

Here in New York, the problem is just as acute. According to Transportation Alternatives, unlicensed drivers are four times as likely to be involved in traffic crashes as properly licensed drivers, but 75 percent of motorists with suspended licenses continue to drive.

Attempts to ensure that private automobiles are driven by people with proper licenses never seem to get the traction that the current push to regulate tour bus operators has managed to generate. A bill introduced in the state legislature last session, which would have increased the penalties for drivers with suspended licenses who cause serious injuries, went nowhere. A 2009 City Council resolution on the issue was ignored at its hearing and died in committee. And of course, one important reform proposed by Governor Eliot Spitzer — allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license — was abandoned after two months of intense political opposition.

Over the last week and a half we’ve seen an extraordinary focus on the importance of licensing to ensuring traffic safety. If the goal is to save lives, however, rather than score political points in the wake of a high-profile tragedy, the focus needs to include private cars, not just tour buses.

  • TKO

    Excellent post!

    People always forget how many daily driving kills.

  • Lind

    You should check your sources before posting false information. Allmir Lekperic’s license was not suspended 29 times as that is clearly impossible , especially for a 26 year old who gets their license when they’re 17. In the state of NY your license is automatically suspended for months at a time after the 3rd suspension so do the math. Also, the papers retracted all the false accusations you post, the day he was indicted. Please see http://www.silive.com/eastshore/index.ssf/2010/07/felony_indictment_unsealed_aga.html?mobRedir=false

    You should maybe think about writing an article about people that have fallen victim to jay walking as that is probably a bigger problem in NY. Then I would use Allmir Lekperic as a clear example as he would be much better suited for an article of that nature. Get your facts and research in line.

  • Sedge

    While the facts in this case my still be in dispute (Lind, your link is based on a ‘source’), let’s see what the trial uncovers. Sure jaywalking is a problem, as is the fact almost nobody knows (or drives) the speed limit in NYC. And there is no disputing how many drivers who have lost their license continue to drive. Perhaps after so many examples, we should start impounding cars, ala drug dealers.

  • Lind

    Well Sedge, let’s just say I’m a bit more knowledgeable in this particular case as I was physically at the indictment where it was cited that they received his backdated check for a tint window ticket the very next day following the accident and that technically his license was not suspended. Also, it was a charge they didn’t pursue any further when he plead guilty for leaving the scene in February. The “source” is clearly someone within the court system that had a tiny bit more information than yourself. Don’t believe everything you read, papers and blogs write anything for a good story.

  • Driver

    Just because someones license is suspended does not necessarily mean they are a reckless menace. Having a license suspended for a technicality such as a late payment or insurance lapse does not reflect a persons ability to drive, and should be considered differently than someone who’s license is suspended for multiple or severe moving violations, DWI, recklessness, etc.

    The licensing process is a joke anyway. Just because someone manages to get a license does not mean they can safely operate a vehicle in real world conditions or operate responsibly. What we really need is an overhaul of the licensing process.

  • Joe R.

    Thank you, Driver. My sentiments exactly. Fully agreed that we need a licensing procedure which puts drivers in real-world conditions. We also need to only suspend licenses for truly dangerous actions, not stuff like being caught going 2 mph over the speed limit a couple of times. There should be zero tolerance towards DWI especially. I’m all in favor of a 5 year suspension for the first DWI offense, 10 years for the second, and lifetime for the third.

  • The only way to ensure a licensed driver is to require every car come with a slot in which you stick in your license. No license in the slot, the car wont turn on.

  • Driver is right on the money (literally) here. From my reading of the DMV rules on license suspensions, “suspension” is not a term that implies ever having done something improper in a moving vehicle. You can get your license suspended for not paying parking tickets.

    DMV also has a “Driver Responsibility Program,” which duns people who were convicted of DWI/DUI type offenses for years after the fact. If you don’t pay, then they suspend your license.

    It’s all about the money; has anyone looked to see how much DMV rakes in from these programs as compared to their more straightforward licensing fees?

  • Mystic

    I can personally comment on the ridiculousness of the Driver Responsibility Assessment. I had to deal with my license being suspended for a time because, unlike rich people, I can’t just pull $500 out of thin air whenever NYS decides on a whim to balance their books by squeezing drivers for more money. The tickets that caused the assessment were for doing 62 in a 55 zone and 60 in a 50. Let me know if a minute goes by at any point in a day when the Southern State or Grand Central Pkwy don’t see someone hitting 60 miles per hour. Mind you, I’ve been driving for over 20 years, over 500,000 miles between 3 cars, and have ONE fender-bender over that time. But NYS deems ME such an irresponsible driver that I need to fork over an additional $1000 over 2 years? Yea, truly, not all suspensions are the same in this state.

  • Joe R.


    I regularly see those kinds of speeds and more on 164th Street and most other arterials near me. Just last night I saw a private sanitation truck on 164th Street doing an easy 55 mph. I didn’t even know those trucks could go that fast.

  • Lind

    Amen to Driver, Joe. R and Mystic!

  • Driver

    “The tickets that caused the assessment were for doing 62 in a 55 zone and 60 in a 50.”
    Even more absurd is receiving the risk assessment for multiple off truck route violations while making local deliveries (not me, a couple of people I know). This is in essence a nuisance violation rather than a safety violation. In many cases trying to strictly follow the truck routes results in a LOT of extra driving, usually on the busiest roads and (pedestrian) intersections. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying trucks should drive wherever they please, but without some leeway and discretion it can be difficult for trucks making local deliveries to operate with any degree of efficiency.
    And the cost of those violations, they start at $280 and double for each violation till they max out at $2000, plus two points per violation. That’s big bucks to any working schlep. And in similar fashion to the bike crackdown, the police go after the low hanging fruit, not the more glaring violations that the law is really designed to prevent.

  • J:Lai

    “The only way to ensure a licensed driver is to require every car come with a slot in which you stick in your license. No license in the slot, the car wont turn on.”

    A drivers license is not required to operate a motor vehicle, but rather to operate a motor vehicle on public roads.

    What you could do, using RFID or similar technology, is to embed drivers licenses with small chips that transmit a unique ID, and to have randomly placed readers that check these IDs against a database of valid licenses. An driver without a valid license would be detected and the car could be photographed or enforcement could be alerted.

    However, such a system would require states to share information in a central database of valid license IDs.

  • And J:Lai brings up tangentially the other reason why license suspensions have no relationship to safety: the lack of interstate coordination. New York DMV only counts crashes here in New York, not in other states.

  • Joe R.

    Jonathan’s last comment actually brings up a good reason why a uniform, national licensing procedure, with the same requirements in all 50 states, makes more sense than having 50 separate licensing bureaus. You can better track points and license suspensions. With one (hopefully) much higher standard for attaining/keeping a license, maybe we can finally cut down on the annual auto carnage.

  • J:Lai

    Joe R, the flipside of your suggestion is the lack of local autonomy to decide how to use and regulate road space. Imagine if the federal government, under your scenario, decided to implement a license and registration requirement for bicycle riders. Individually states and cities would have no freedom to decide whether it made sense to implement locally.

  • Joe R.

    Not saying it wouldn’t have downsides, J:Lai, but I would like to see a little more uniformity in driver licensing, perhaps at least a national minimum set of requirements, with states being able to add more if needed. Even more important is some way of sharing data on violations between states. No nothing is stopping a driver whose license was suspended in another state from obtaining a new one in another. Sure, some suspensions are for technicalities, but do we really want someone who lost their license for good cause driving elsewhere?

  • LaLa

    The 29 suspensions were from unpaid parking tickets.  Not moving violations.  Methinks the writer should have done a little research before picking a driver out of a hat to use as the scapegoat for his article. 

  • Ian Turner

    LaLa: Citation please?

  • dporpentine

    LaLa: even if what you say is true, so what? 29 license suspensions from unpaid parking tickets is still evidence of being a seriously irresponsible human being–someone who should never have been allowed to drive after, say, suspension number 3, let alone number 28 . . . 


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