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A recent study by the AAA auto club revealed a shocking statistic: One out of seven drivers in North Carolina doesn’t have a valid driver’s license.

That number was so outrageous that I must admit I had trouble wrapping my head around it. I tried to visualize the threat: Driving down the street, I counted the cars, and imagined every seventh vehicle with a dangerous driver behind the wheel, a crash waiting to happen. As I tried this little mental exercise, it seemed that the cars began whizzing past me faster and faster, and the belted-in, safe haven of my SUV driver’s seat didn’t seem very safe anymore at all.

Image / Egerton Law

The odds are that one in seven of the vehicles near you on an N.C. highway is being driven by a person without a valid license, according to AAA.

One out of seven? Those odds are just one bullet better than a game of Russian roulette. One 5,000-pound bullet on four tires, zipping by in the lane right beside me.

And don’t doubt that the danger is lethal. AAA also reports that 21 percent of deadly accidents in North Carolina involve an unlicensed driver.

The financial expense is tremendous as well. A driver without a license is a driver without insurance – so after a crash the driver with a license winds up paying the cost. Legal drivers in our state pay millions each year for the accidents caused by uninsured drivers.

The auto club contends that one reason for the problem is that laws are not tough enough on people who drive without a license. “The law today, I’ve got a suspended license for a year. I get caught, they just add another year on it,” said AAA spokesman Tom Crosby in an interview with WSOC-TV. “I just get in my car, drive away.”

Unlicensed drivers obviously don’t take the charge seriously, according to another report, from WRAL-TV. “I think they probably drive up here to the courthouse and drive away,” said Wake County’s district attorney. One judge commented: “They’ll take the chance, and you can see that by the fact that they come into court with two, three, four, five driving while license revoked, so you know they’re driving.”

A “Click It or Ticket” campaign in September caught 8,296 unlicensed drivers, the WRAL report said. People convicted of driving while their license is revoked can face as little as a 45-day suspended sentence, a year of probation and a $200 fine.

AAA is pushing to get legislation for more severe punishment for driving without a license, to be introduced in the legislature in January. Crosby suggested that potential jail time for first offenses would be appropriate, and seizure of the vehicle for second offenses.

In another report, “Unlicensed to Kill,” AAA said that nationally, 18.2 percent of fatal crashes involved a driver without a valid license. From 2007 to 2009, those crashes killed 21,049 people.

AAA also estimated that a little more than half of all drivers who left the scene of a fatal accident did not have a valid license. As we have noted before, the lack of a license is part of a typical pattern of hit-and-run accidents.

Obviously tougher penalties are needed to stop the rampant flouting of the law by unlicensed drivers. But in the meantime, we urge drivers to make sure they have sufficient Underinsured Motorist Insurance coverage to protect themselves in the event they are in an accident caused by a driver without a license. The small investment in extra coverage is well worth the peace of mind, given the fact that, unfortunately, unlicensed drivers are all around us.

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