A Department of Motor Vehicles report released last month -- the first of its kind in 15 years -- finds that unlicensed drivers in California are nearly three times as likely to cause fatal crashes as are licensed drivers. Some of those drivers are unlicensed for good reason -- they've had their driving privileges revoked for DUI or other offenses. But vast numbers are thought to be illegal immigrants who simply aren't eligible for licenses.

The report doesn't break down the numbers in that way, but others have. And the numbers prompt this question: Would California streets be safer if illegal immigrants were made eligible for driver's licenses? The testing that's required of driving applicants can only help create more responsible drivers. Unlicensed drivers are more likely to be uninsured, driving up rates for those who are, and they're more likely to leave the scene of a crash.

Perhaps it's time for the Legislature to weigh the public safety risks posed by continuing to deny driver's licenses to the state's estimated 2.6 million undocumented immigrants. That possibility has been thwarted numerous times in the Legislature, mainly by politicians who feel that licenses provide a form of legitimacy to people who, in their minds, are criminals simply by virtue of their presence.

The state has no ability to legitimize undocumented immigrants -- that's solely the domain of the federal government. But regulating roadways and licensing drivers is a state function. Giving the undocumented the ability to get a license is not legitimizing their presence, it's keeping our roads safe for our 24 million licensed drivers and their passengers.

It's time for that sort of reason, not inflexible immigration dogma, to become the focus of this debate.