Friday, October 28, 2005

Virginians attribute accident trend to tomato pickers and Tennessee license plates

The Virginian-Pilot reports that accidents are on the rise along Virginia's Eastern Shore and attributes the dangerous trend to out-of-state Hispanic workers employed in the area's seasonal tomato industry.

The article states that 25% of the area's fatalities involve Hispanic drivers, often without drivers licenses and without insurance, in cars registered in other states, which the article calls "rogue" vehicles:

"Since 2002, more than 90 people have been injured and 18 killed on the Eastern Shore in accidents involving Hispanic workers driving rogue vehicles."

"The fatalities represent about one-fourth of the 71 highway deaths on the Eastern Shore in that period, even though the year-round Hispanic population makes up only 5 percent of the region’s 51,000 residents. Those numbers swell [to about 7,000] during tomato-picking season, from July through early November, when most of the fatalities occurred."

"In all but three of the fatal accidents in which Hispanics were at the wheel, the drivers had no insurance. In most cases, the vehicles had no inspection stickers, the drivers carried no license and alcohol was a factor. The vast majority of the victims in the fatalities were Hispanic."

The focus of the article then shifts to the fact that Tennessee plates are common in the area, making some suspect whether there is a mail-order license plate operation funneling the plates to Virginia, with others attributing their popularity to the difference between Virginia's requirement that drivers present identification and insurance to obtain a license plate:

"Up and down the Eastern Shore, in the work camps and housing complexes where migrants and year-round laborers live, Tennessee plates abound. Eastern Shore law enforcers suspect there is a flourishing black market for Tennessee tags."

"Several migrants interviewed recently said they got Tennessee tags because they were turned down by Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles."

"Tennessee does not require identification or proof of insurance when a vehicle is titled and plates are issued, as long as the motorist pays cash. Most states require identification or proof of insurance; Virginia requires both."

An article in the Nashville City Paper reported that Tennessee State Senator Bill Ketron is pushing for different, immigration-related requirements for Tennessee license plates, and also for English-only drivers license tests, according to this article in the Nashville City Paper.

"The problem ... has come to the attention of Virginia’s Migrant and Seasonal Farm Workers Advisory Board. The Tennessee license plate matter is 'a political hot potato,' said Kenneth E. Annis of Exmore, chairman of the 15-member board."

"Other regions with significant Hispanic populations, such as Rockingham County in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and the Greensboro/Winston-Salem area of North Carolina, have not seen significant numbers of cars with Tennessee tags, say law enforcement officials there."

"But on the Eastern Shore, 'Somebody is making it very easy for these drivers to get Tennessee tags, Annis said. 'It’s all very fishy.'"

Tennessee county clerks say that Hispanic applicants are applying in person for license plates.

"Jim Houston, county clerk for Union County, said Tennessee officials are aware of the problem. Houston said his office sees 'quite a few' Hispanics registering vehicles, 'and I think the number’s increasing.'"

"When the topic of migrants titling vehicles came up at a recent meeting of Tennessee clerks, Houston said, 'One of the other clerks said, 'Lord, we’re overrun with them.''"

Virginia police are, in some cases, removing and destroying Tennessee license plates from cars pulled over for traffic violations.

"'We’ll take them back and destroy them,' [state Trooper Casey] Lewis said. 'That way they won’t get recycled on the Shore.'"

Recycling of cars themselves is one way Tennessee plates stay in Virginia. Cars that are towed for various violations may never be claimed by their owners.

"They often are sold to other farm laborers, police said, thus making their way back onto the highways – many of them sporting Tennessee plates."

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