Why the Senate should pass the Driving for Opportunity Act

Suspending drivers license for unpaid fines and fees creates an unnecessary cycle of punishment and poverty.

by Jenny Landon, July 22, 2020

When someone’s driver’s license is revoked, you might assume that it’s because they committed a serious driving-related offense, like reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident, or driving while impaired. While that is often the case, a full 40% of license suspensions are for reasons totally unrelated to driving. Most states suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and fees or for failure to pay child support. (Some states even suspend licenses for littering, burning trash, skipping school, unpaid student loans, and – as we have written about before – drug offenses unrelated to driving).

11 million people have had their licenses suspended because they could not afford to pay court fines and fees. The Driving for Opportunity Act would encourage states to stop suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees.

License suspensions create a cycle of punishment:

  1. A person loses their license because they can’t afford court fines or fees.
  2. The loss of a license makes it harder to get to work to earn the money needed to pay off their debt. Of course, it also makes it harder to take children to school, shop for groceries, get to medical appointments, make court dates, etc.
  3. To meet these basic needs, 83% of people with suspended licenses continue to drive. Driving with a suspended license puts them at risk for even greater fines, or even incarceration, which is incredibly expensive for the individual as well as the taxpayer.

Suspending licenses for unpaid court fines and fees punishes people for being poor and traps them in a cycle of debt. Suspension laws disproportionately impact poor communities, communities of color, and communities that have few alternative means of transportation. Research in New Jersey found that while only 16% of the state population is low-income, 50% of the people who have their driver’s licenses suspended are low-income. And more than 40% of drivers lost their jobs after their license was suspended.

The harms of driver’s license suspensions extend beyond the individuals who lose their licenses. Motor vehicle administrators and law enforcement officials themselves have argued that “our limited resources should be focused on dangerous drivers.” Yet thousands of taxpayer dollars are spent punishing safe drivers who simply can’t afford to pay certain fines.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators collected data from their members on the hidden costs of suspending driver’s licenses:

  • Colorado found that suspending driver’s licenses for offenses unrelated to driving consumed 8,566 hours per year of staff time — the equivalent of four full-time employees.
  • Florida estimated that $72,000 a year is spent on paper, envelopes, and postage in order to correspond with people whose licenses were suspended for non-driving reasons.
  • Georgia expected that reforming its non-driving suspension laws would save $80,000 a year in postage costs alone.

License suspension also doesn’t work as a means to get people to pay off their debt: The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators evaluated this claim, concluding: “there is no evidence which indicates that suspending a person’s driving privileges for social non-conformance reasons is effective in gaining compliance with the reason for the original non-driving suspension.”

For years, we’ve been successfully campaigning to get states to end the practice of suspending drivers licenses for drug offenses. You can learn more about that work in our report Reinstating Common Sense.

For these reasons and more, we gladly signed on to a letter (written by the Free to Drive Campaign) urging U.S Senate leaders to pass the Driving for Opportunity Act.

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