Fixing Loose Licenses

States must tighten their procedures for issuing driver's licenses. That was clear after Sept. 11, when it became known that several of the hijackers had obtained licenses by using false identities.

But how far should the tightening go? Should these essential state identification cards become national IDs?

Recommendations announced last week by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators highlight that question. Among them: standardized licensing procedures in all states, tougher authentication of applicants' identities, and expansion of a national databank to include all licensed drivers. The existing databank embraces only those with commercial licenses, such as truckers.

The association didn't specify anti-fraud measures that might be built into licenses, but they could include such identifiers as fingerprints, facial scans, and computer chips with added identifying information.

Such plans should set off alarms about a danger to civil liberties. Many Americans are suspicious of government efforts to keep closer track of citizens. Might the information, which would be linked to agencies such as the FBI, be misused by officials? How could individuals, aware of often error-filled credit reports, be sure their data was accurate?

Those concerns need to be balanced against a need to make licensing less susceptible to fraud. As things stand, some states are much looser than others in checking IDs. Would-be terrorists can take advantage of states where it's easiest to obtain a license.

Upgrading standards therefore makes sense. But it will take teamwork between the states and Congress to get that done. Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois plans to introduce a bill to create uniform licensing standards.

The outcome ought to be licenses less subject to fraud, but that stop short of being national IDs.

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