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Guest Column: License Suspensions Are Devastating — And They Aren’t Making Our Roads Safer

"The drivers most at risk of losing their license for debt are the ones least able to pay, not the ones most likely to drive dangerously."

A curious feature of American road policy is that one of our primary punishments for traffic violations — taking away a person’s driver’s license — is also a common punishment for many violations that have nothing to do with driving. Stranger still is that it isn’t clear, in either case, that the punishment is very effective; suspending someone’s license can create a lot of misery, but may not do much to enhance safety on our roads.Drivers can, of course, lose their licenses for intuitive reasons: flagrant traffic violations like driving drunk or speeding one too many times. But the average drunk motorist will drive impaired an average of 80 times before they’re caught — and the typical speeder isn’t caught at all, let alone caught the number of times necessary to lose a license.Instead, many license suspensions are used by states to threaten people who have unpaid debts. Those debts can take many forms: a skipped child support payment, delinquent taxes, a missed traffic fine, or unpaid fees from infractions or misdemeanors. Huge swaths of Americans – 11 million, conservatively — have lost their licenses for not paying traffic or court-related debt, and states often use revenue from these fines and fees to prop up their general funds or finance their court systems. Needless to say, the drivers most at risk of losing their license for debt are the ones least able to pay, not the ones most likely to drive dangerously.Losing a license is a particularly harsh punishment in more ways that one. The driver’s license, in the US, is a de facto national ID card, and losing one makes it harder to vote, purchase alcohol, register for welfare benefits, open a bank account, or complete any number of other transactions that require proof of identity. Losing a license can also make it hard, if not impossible, to get to work, making it difficult to earn money and, ironically, pay off the debts that lead to the suspension in the first place.Driving on a suspended license to get to work, though, is a strategy that works until it doesn’t, because getting caught just means more fines and fees, and potentially, even jail time. It’s a counterproductive cycle

How we got here

Like many bad policies, the practice of withholding a license over unpaid debt is one the US muddled its way into. Until the 1960s, when nearly every state began requiring auto insurance, uninsured drivers could suddenly owe huge sums of money if they caused a crash. States tried to prod drivers into paying — and punish them if they failed to do so — by taking away their licenses and refusing to restore them until the debt was cleared. Once states decided they liked the basic idea of using suspensions to coerce payment, though, they started applying the tactic to other forms of debt, too. And when low-income drivers in the early auto era objected to all this in court, they tended to lose. After all, judges reasoned, a driver’s license is a privilege, not a right.That argument made sense at a time when the country was nowhere near as profoundly oriented around the car. Today, though, suspending a license can quickly become a punishment that neither fits the crime nor is particularly effective at coercing payment. Not only do suspensions often fail to get people to pay their debts, they also appear to be failing in the exact policy arena in which they are meant to excel: traffic safety. America’s streets are increasingly dangerous, with pedestrian deaths alone reaching a 41 year high last year.Suspending licenses for bad driving makes more sense than suspending them for debt, but it still misses the real threat: everyday driver recklessness that goes overwhelmingly unpunished.The prevalence of suspensions for debt illuminates our transportation policy priorities. Most US communities don’t want to enforce speeding violations with cameras or design roads that make driving fast difficult, nor do we want to fund alternatives to driving. Instead, our road punishments essentially punish poverty in a futile effort to generate revenue — and meanwhile, our roads just get more deadly.  

The way forward

This is, however, a partially hopeful story. Many states still won’t use cameras to prevent speeding, but they are starting to topple mercenary driver’s license statutes and fines and fees. And while the federal government can’t force states to change their driver’s license policies, they can try to persuade them to. The debate over the injustice of licenses suspensions has even reached Washington DC, where the Driving to Opportunity bill now sits in Congress. The bill offers a carrot to states hesitant to remove suspensions for fines and fees because of the administrative costs of reinstatement, offering them grant money to cover those costs so long as they abolish suspensions for failing to pay fines and fees at the same time.The bill also acts as a stick towards the four states that still allow license suspensions for drug offenses unrelated to driving — one of the vestiges of our country’s ineffective and disproportionate War on Drugs policies — by rescinding a portion of those states’ federal highway funds if they don’t change their policies.Driving to Opportunity is a sensible bill, one that manages to unite criminal justice advocates alongside libertarians wary of state interference, as well as conservatives concerned that suspensions cost taxpayers and hurt the economy.  Taking away licenses for nonpayment does little to improve safety and quite a bit to reduce people’s overall wellbeing. Hopefully, we can all agree on that — and that changing these policies should be low-hanging fruit for transportation reformers.
Miriam Pinski is a transportation scholar affiliated with the Shared-Use Mobility Center. She holds a doctorate in urban planning, and is writing a book about the history of the driver’s license. 
The post Op-Ed: License Suspensions Are Devastating — And They Aren’t Making Our Roads Safer appeared first on Streetsblog USA.

The post Guest Column: License Suspensions Are Devastating — And They Aren’t Making Our Roads Safer appeared first on Streetsblog Massachusetts.

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