Driver’s License or Good Citizen’s Card?

The driver’s license was originally created to ensure public safety by setting standards for driving competency. Accordingly, license suspensions were a legal mechanism to remove unsafe drivers from the road. But in the last fifteen years, federal and state lawmakers have viewed the license as a “good citizen” trophy and sought to suspend it for a number of non-driving-related reasons.

The list of non-driving misdemeanors resulting in license suspension includes failure to pay parking fines and failure to appear in court, even for reasons completely unrelated to driving. State agencies are increasingly using driver’s license suspension to enforce laws and public policies that have nothing to do with driving or even motor vehicles. The problem is that suspension of driving privileges makes it much more difficult to keep or find a job, and thus makes it even harder for individuals to comply with whatever rule was broken in the first place.

In Oregon, as in many other states, more than fifty non-driving-related offenses can lead to a driver’s license suspension. Some typical non-driving-related reasons that lead to suspension are: failure to comply with court orders, failure to appear in court, failure to pay child support, and failure to pay certain fines.

In a recent report, the Mobility Agenda (a Washington D.C.-based think tank that seeks to stimulate support for strengthening the labor market and benefiting workers) discusses how driver’s license suspension can have negative economic and social effects, especially if a license is suspended for non-driving-related reasons. Local communities, employers and employees experience serious negative consequences as a result of license suspensions, including unemployment, lower wages, and fewer employment opportunities and hiring choices. Some employers, particularly in the construction and healthcare fields, require a driver’s license as a precondition of employment, either because driving is part of the job or as a way to screen applicants.

In addition to these negative effects, other costs can be associated with license suspension, like the expensive license reinstatement process that includes court appearances and legal assistance. In some states, automobile insurance costs automatically increase after a suspension, even if the suspension is for non-driving reasons. Low-income workers are likely to be disproportionately affected by license suspensions arising from inability to pay fines and fees. Suspending low-income workers’ licenses can lead to additional economic distress both for employers and the extended community when people are unable to reach or to apply for jobs inaccessible by public transit. This is yet another barrier to a low-income worker’s economic opportunity and stable income.

The Mobility Agenda report also discusses state-level policy changes making a crucial impact in reducing license suspension for non-driving-related reasons. For example, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, community leaders succeeded in facilitating some statutory changes resulting in fewer license suspensions due to non-driving-related reasons. This change significantly decreased the number of drivers with suspended licenses in Milwaukee.

The driver’s license is a vital link to employment for many workers and should not be suspended for reasons unrelated to driving at the whim of policymakers who would like to convert the driver’s license into a “good citizen” card.

Sreya Sarkar is Director of the Asset Ownership Project at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.