A string of tragic hit-and-run accidents, including one that killed a 5-year-old boy last month in Los Angeles County, has heightened concerns about the dangers posed by the multitudes of unlicensed drivers on Southern California's roadways.
"There are literally thousands of people here in Los Angeles driving on suspended licenses who've had multiple convictions," says Los Angeles Municipal Court Commissioner Anthony Filosa.
"It's an epidemic," Filosa says. He estimates that during his six years presiding in traffic court, he has sentenced well over 10,000 motorists for driving with suspended licenses.
"It's intolerable. They are a danger to the community," he says.
And the relevant caseload continues to grow:
* In the hit-and-run Oct. 11 that killed Salvador Sanchez, who was struck as he walked across Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima with his 11-year-old brother, the driver did not have a license, according to police.
The suspect, Reynaldo Chavez Manso, 21, fled the scene of the accident, authorities said, but was followed by a witness who gave police the license plate number of the car he was allegedly driving. Manso later turned himself in, and he has been charged with felony hit-and-run, said Detective R.S. Uber of the Los Angeles Police Department's Valley Traffic Division.
* In the case of an Orange County father of five, Alejandro Gonzalez, who died after being hit Oct. 5 by a car and a van in Anaheim, police suspect that the drivers who fled the accident may have been unlicensed.
* And again, after a 15-year-old honor student was killed by a hit-and-run driver as he walked along Pacific Coast Highway near Laguna Beach last month, law enforcement has similar suspicions.
"For whatever reason, the drivers fled," says Sgt. Joe Vargas of the Anaheim Police Department, which is investigating the Gonzalez double hit-and-run.
Chances are, Vargas says, "they ran because they were unlicensed, driving on revoked or suspended licenses, or uninsured."
Of the 5,879 traffic accidents in Anaheim last year, 980 were hit-and-run incidents. Of those, only 94 resulted in suspects being prosecuted, Vargas says.
California has long been plagued by drivers illegally operating vehicles. But with the 1995 passage of a state law allowing police to impound an unlicensed driver's car for 30 days, law enforcement officials report a drop in hit-and-run accidents as well as citations for driving without a license.
In 1997, the California Highway Patrol cited 144,125 people for driving without a license or with revoked or suspended licenses, according to Officer Frank Sandoval. That figure was down from 214,770 in 1994.
But despite such improvements in compliance with the law, it remains a troubling issue.
Vargas complains that it's frustrating when motorists whose licenses have been revoked or suspended because of drunk driving or serious safety violations continue to drive illegally and endanger others. And, of course, these unlicensed drivers have a powerful reason to flee the scene of an accident.
Police also see cases in which drivers simply abandon their "disposable," unregistered cars at the scene. These are usually older vehicles that can be dumped if the driver needs to get away, Vargas says.
"They figure, 'What are the chances of me getting caught?' " he says. The odds may favor them, Vargas says, when you consider the number of drivers on the road compared with the number of officers on patrol.
Commissioner Filosa has developed a program to try to deal with some of the most serious offenders who ignore the law. When sentencing violators, he warns them that they will be followed from the courthouse by security officers to make sure they do not drive away.
"It's unbelievable, the number of people who will go to the parking lot and get into their car," he says. "And they are shocked when the sheriff's deputy stops them and brings them back to my courtroom."
The problem of unlicensed drivers remains difficult to solve because "this is such a diverse county and driving is essential," Filosa says. "Many people [who are in this] country illegally are driving without a license because they can't get one."
To obtain a license, people need proof of insurance and a Social Security card. Those who can't meet those requirements are in a tough situation.
"People have to work and they need to drive. That compels some people to violate the law," Filosa says.
No one knows for sure how many unlicensed drivers are on the road. But according to the most recent statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 6,280 drivers with invalid licenses were involved in fatal car accidents nationwide in 1996.
To crack down on unlicensed drivers, law enforcement agencies are setting up random roadblocks to check for licenses. And impounding vehicles has become an effective deterrent, according to a study last year by the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Meantime, Filosa says, "the penalties are already in place." Violating a license suspension can result in up to $800 in fines or 10 days in jail.
What's also needed, he says, is more public education: "People need to know it's a huge problem."
Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles CA 90053. Via e-mail: email@example.com.