What Happens When an Unlicensed Driver Causes a Car Accident?

unlicensed driver auto accident

Driving has long been thought of as a rite of passage that teens go through as they transition from childhood into the adult world full of more responsibility. Once a driver’s license is successfully obtained, its owner has the means not only to more independence, but also to the freedom of the beckoning road.

Along with the independence and freedom associated with getting behind the wheel, however, comes great responsibility. As the often-quoted line in Spider Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Driving, of course, is not a right, but rather is a privilege. The right to drive can be denied or taken away by the state if the driver doesn’t follow the many rules of the road that have been put into place to ensure the safety of the general public.

Who drives without a license?

Every day, millions of people in the United States drive a vehicle without a valid driver’s license. Who are these unlicensed motorists? The answer to that question can be as varied as the roadway system in this country itself.

Unlicensed motorists include those who have never had a valid driver’s license at any point in their lives. The category also encompasses those individuals who elect to drive after having their license suspended or permanently revoked due to a gamut of possible causes.

Possible reasons for a license suspension or revocation can include:

  • A DUI conviction
  • Failure to maintain adequate automobile insurance
  • Accumulation of too many points on one’s license for committing moving violations
  • Conviction of certain criminal offenses leading to a lifetime revocation

In addition, the types of people who may make the bad decision to drive without a license often involve:

  • Teenagers who either are too young to have a valid license or who haven’t taken the appropriate steps to obtain licensure
  • Elderly person who may have failed a driving renewal exam due to an age related condition such as visual or mental impairment
  • Those who may have had a license revoked because of a medical condition such as seizures
  • Immigrants who are in the United States and haven’t yet secured a driver’s license (even if they were licensed in their home countries)

The danger of unlicensed drivers

Why do unlicensed drivers pose such a public safety threat?

The most obvious answer is that those who are unlicensed are unlicensed for a reason. The unlicensed driver has either disregarded safety laws, chosen to drive drunk, elected to not maintain sufficient liability insurance, posed a great threat to others on the road in the past and possibly seriously hurt or killed someone with a motor vehicle, or they have never received proper driver’s education covering the laws of the road. 

Simply put, these drivers pose a higher level of danger to others on the road, and risk injuring themselves and others in the process.

Exactly how much damage do unlicensed operators cause?

Sadly, the answer is more than you might think.

According to a report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety entitled “Unlicensed to Kill,” nearly one in five (18.2%) fatal car crashes during the years studied involved an unlicensed or invalidly licensed driver. In these fatal crashes, it was estimated that 6.7% of drivers had a license that had been suspended or revoked, 1.1% had a license that had either expired or been cancelled or subsequently denied, and 5.0% were simply never licensed to begin with.

Tragically, the fatal crashes covered by the AAA report resulted in the deaths of 21,049 people.

Unlicensed driver liability law

Imagine that you get into a car crash with an unlicensed driver. Obviously, this event is traumatic enough by itself, but the discovery that the other driver who caused the collision isn’t licensed can certainly complicate the situation and add stress.

In such circumstances, several factors can arise.

But first, a word of caution:

An unlicensed driver who is involved in a traffic crash isn’t automatically liable simply by virtue of being without a valid license. Rather, liability depends on where negligence lies. This is to say that fault is dependent upon which party or parties failed to act safely and responsibly while driving. So it’s a misconception to believe that failing to have a valid driver’s license will automatically result in the unlicensed driver being held responsible for the crash. In order to be held liable, they must have acted carelessly in some way that caused the collision.

In most (but not all) states, a person needs a valid license in order to obtain automobile insurance for a vehicle registered in their name. The absence of a proof of a driver’s license would prevent that person from obtaining insurance. On top of that, many insurance policies are written specifically to deny coverage in circumstances where the driver was unlicensed to begin with or had their license suspended, which then causes a resulting lapse in coverage.

In all of these cases where there is no insurance covering the car of the unlicensed driver, an injured party (the plaintiff) may file a personal injury lawsuit against the person who caused the accident. The downside with this course of action, however, is that many unlicensed drivers lack sufficient money or other assets to pay for damages.

As a result, the injured party will most likely have to look to their own insurance company to cover both property damage and bodily injury claims. This would be accomplished through their Uninsured or Underinsured Motorist (UM/UIM) coverage. UM/UIM coverage safeguards a policyholder against uninsured or underinsured motorists by allowing an injured person to file a claim with their own insurer to take care of any costs and damages above and beyond any money which can be obtained from the at-fault motorist.

A second possible scenario is where the car is borrowed by the unlicensed driver with the permission of the car’s owner. Insurance typically follows the vehicle, not the driver. This fact means that if the unlicensed and/or uninsured driver who caused the accident was driving someone else’s insured vehicle with permission, then that policy should cover the injured party’s damages—regardless of the licensure status of the at-fault driver.

A third possible scenario is where the unlicensed driver stole a car which they didn’t have permission to drive and then caused a collision. In these instances, the absence of permission from the car’s owner would null coverage such that any insurance policy associated with the vehicle wouldn’t pay out for damages. The best course of action in these cases is for the injured party to pursue payment for damages under their own insurer’s UM/UIM coverage or by filing a civil lawsuit.

A fourth possibility worth mentioning is an owner/agent situation where a work vehicle owned by an employer is operated negligently by an “agent” (usually an employee, but possibly a contractor as well). If the agent is at-fault for causing an accident while behind the wheel of the company vehicle, and while working within the course and scope of their employment, then the owner and any insurer of the vehicle can be held liable for damages.

How to protect yourself if you’re hit by an unlicensed driver

Regardless of the licensure status of the at-fault driver or the existence of insurance on the car, there are basic steps that you should take following an accident when you likely have no idea whether the other driver is properly licensed.

  1. Call police.
  2. Make sure everyone is okay.
  3. Write down the other driver’s name and contact information.
  4. Use your cell phone to take photographs of the accident scene that include the license plate of the other car.
  5. Write down the names and contact information of any potential witnesses.
  6. File a police report and answer officer questions.
  7. Seek medical attention (even if you don’t think you were hurt).

Ultimately, no one can truly control when a car accident may occur or who is behind the wheel of the other vehicle. Ideally, the other driver will be validly licensed and fully insured with an appropriate amount of liability coverage.

In the real world, however, this sometimes isn’t the case.

The best way to protect yourself is to maintain adequate UM/UIM coverage as part of your auto insurance policy and to work with an experienced car accident attorney who can help navigate the many possible types of cases where an unlicensed driver has caused an accident.

These two actions will help ensure that you as the injured party are fairly compensated for your damages.

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