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Coons, Wicker introduce bill targeting debt-based driver's license suspension

Delaware News Desk
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times

Sens. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, and Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, introduced on July 2 the bipartisan Driving for Opportunity Act to create incentives to stop debt-based driver’s license suspensions.

Nationwide, at least 11 million people have their driver’s licenses suspended because they cannot pay fines or fees, not for any public safety reasons. This makes it harder for Americans to go to work to pay off their debts and places an unnecessary burden on police to enforce suspensions, expending resources that should go to public safety, increasing hostilities in the communities they serve and putting officers and citizens at increased risk of infection during a pandemic.

Many states — red and blue — are moving to end this practice. The Driving for Opportunity Act would further incentivize states to stop this policy by repealing the federal mandate to suspend driver’s licenses for certain non-driving-related offenses and authorizing targeted grants to states that repeal laws suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees.

“Driver’s licenses enable millions of Americans to travel to and from work, their children’s schools, doctor’s appointments and places of worship,” said Coons. “At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even harder for Americans to pay their bills and care for their families, taking away someone’s driver’s license can make it nearly impossible to hold down a job and therefore pay back their debts. The Driving for Opportunity Act would end this practice that traps our most vulnerable populations in a cycle of debt while lifting an unnecessary and counterproductive responsibility from our police departments at a time when they are already carrying too heavy a burden.”

Research increasingly shows that suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees negatively impacts families, communities and law enforcement.

Driver’s license suspensions lead to increased unemployment and underemployment. According to a report by the Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force in New Jersey, 42% of those who lost their licenses due to certain non-driving-related offenses lost their jobs as a result, and 45% of those who lost their jobs were unable to find new employment. Eighty-eight percent of those who were able to find another job reported a decrease in income. A Harvard Law School report called the suspension of driver’s licenses “one of the most pervasive poverty traps for poor people assessed a fine that they cannot afford to pay.”

Suspensions put people at risk without benefit to public safety. According to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, 75% of suspended drivers continue to drive, facing further fines, fees, and incarceration if they get pulled over. Police officers will then be required to make traffic stops as debt collectors, and unnecessary traffic stops can be unsafe, particularly during a pandemic.

Driver’s license suspensions take up law enforcement officers’ time. In 2015, Washington State calculated that state troopers spent 70,848 hours dealing with suspensions for non-driving offenses. Arresting one person for driving with a suspended license can take nine hours of an officer’s time when considering all the paperwork required.

Suspending licenses also disproportionately harms rural communities and minorities. Only 11% of rural residents have access to public transportation services. Studies show that Black and Latino people are more likely to be the subject of traffic enforcement and have their license suspended, despite comparable traffic violation rates.

For a one-pager on the Driving for Opportunity Act, visit bit.ly/2AnAvF1.