The controversy about issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants overlooks one possible solution: allow auto insurers to test and “license” such individuals.

On safety grounds, drivers and vehicles need to be tested to see that they meet required standards to reduce the risk of accidents. They also need to be insured so that those who cause accidents can at least pay the costs they impose on others. But unlicensed drivers can’t get insurance, which might explain why an estimated 14 percent of U.S. motorists operate uninsured vehicles.

The problem is that government-issued driver’s licenses serve many purposes beyond certifying the knowledge and competence of the driver. They are used as identity documents, which not only provide a path to social services, voting and citizenship but also give the holder access to public buildings and transportation facilities that require identification.

Authorizing insurers to test and license drivers and vehicles would eliminate these problems. A driving permit issued by an insurer or an insurance industry-affiliated organization would not provide a path to citizenship and could not be used as an identity document. But it would improve safety.

This is not a far-fetched idea. Placing responsibility on insurers is common in maritime transportation, for example, where safety is taken seriously - and ships and ships’ officers are tested and licensed by Lloyds of London and other insurers.

Because they could be held liable for any injuries caused or suffered by those they license, insurers would have compelling incentives to keep unsafe drivers and vehicles off public roads and probably would do it better than the government agencies now responsible.

For example, an October 2007 report by Maryland’s Office of Legislative Audits determined the state Motor Vehicle Administration’s accountability and compliance level was “unsatisfactory” in that required documentation was not always obtained for licenses issued and that driving licenses were issued even to dead people.

The report was particularly concerned about the implementation of Maryland’s Ignition Interlock program, which requires those convicted of drunken driving to have their vehicles equipped with devices that prevent them from starting if excessive alcohol levels are detected.

While Maryland’s MVA staff failed to properly enforce this program, can you imagine an insurance company, with tens of millions of dollars at risk, failing to enforce such an important deterrent?

In its 2000 report “Unlicensed to Kill,” the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showed Maryland’s inability to control unlicensed driving was not unique.

According to the report, the percentage of unlicensed drivers in the 1990s varied from 6 percent in Maine to 23 percent in New Mexico. Unlicensed drivers were found to be almost five times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than licensed drivers, and 20 percent of all fatal accidents involved at least one driver without a valid license.

Testing and licensing by insurers could thus improve safety and reduce the number of uninsured drivers on our roads, without perpetuating the political problems created by government licensing of illegal immigrants.

It might also help resolve another controversy: allowing Mexican trucks to operate on U.S. highways. If insurers took responsibility for testing, licensing and insuring foreign vehicles and drivers, American road users would have less cause for worry.

Some might object to insurer licensing on the grounds it would give excessive power to insurance companies, which would try to maximize profits by insuring only the lowest risks. But so long as there is competition among insurers, applicants turned down by one company could go to another, and policies would tend to be granted whenever risks were covered by premiums.

In a competitive market, insurers would have an incentive to develop and insist on the use of safety measures such as Ignition Interlocks for alcoholics and devices to prevent elderly and long-distance drivers from falling asleep at the wheel.

Issuing driving licenses to illegal immigrants should not be the source of so much controversy. It can be dealt with by creating alternative licensing options that place the responsibility fairly and squarely where it belongs: in the hands of the responsible insurers.