crossroads feb2013

February 2013

How is the topic of Suspended & Revoked Licenses affecting your line of work?

Traffic vs. Non-Traffic Penalties

Traffic offenses account for the largest number of cases handled by state and local prosecutors. According to the National Center for State Courts, Court Statistics Project, there were 58,264,848 traffic cases filed in 2009. Cases involving suspended or revoked driver’s licenses make up a part of these numbers and include those for which the suspension or revocation have nothing to do with a traffic or other criminal offense. Rather, the license action may be for matters wholly unrelated to traffic safety.

Traffic safety is the primary goal of the driver licensing and sanctioning laws. While withholding the driving privilege is an effective deterrent and enforcement tool for compliance with traffic safety laws and regulations, it has been used as an enforcement tool for compliance with non-traffic related matters. Addressing these non-traffic related matters in the same manner as safety related driving sanctions dilutes their effectiveness and creates inefficiencies and inequities in law enforcement, the judicial process, and the system of corrections.

To best serve traffic safety, penalties for driving while privileges are withheld for safety related reasons must be distinguished from penalties for driving while privileges are withheld for reasons other than traffic safety. Rather than further punish a person suspended for financial reasons, a prosecutor might request the court to give them time to satisfy the obligation or otherwise cure the issue which led to the loss of their license. Prosecutors must exercise their discretion in determining what charges and sanctions are appropriate when dealing with these cases.

The Key to Changing Behavior

My involvement with AAMVA’s Suspended and Revoked Drivers Working Group centered around the notion that we have experienced a nationwide effort in the last couple of decades to expand driver’s license sanctioning into areas that are not related to driver safety, but rather into areas that are social compliance issues. For example, federal legislation imposed a requirement on states to have some type of license sanctioning for individuals who are not in compliance with their child support orders.

Data does not support that a restraint is effective in keeping drivers off the road, but it has shown that suspended and revoked licenses can be effective in changing behavior. People are interested in retaining or regaining their driving privileges for issues other than traffic safety, such as needing to show that they have a good driving record in order to gain employment or keeping the job they currently have.

By using suspensions and revocations for things that are not related to traffic safety, we’ve diluted the effectiveness of those suspensions and revocations. In the future, I think we are going to see some states, like we’ve started to do in Colorado, begin to legislate away from some of these driver’s license restraints that are based on social compliance. I also think we will see some states go toward a dual mechanism where they treat those suspensions and revocations that are safety related differently than they treat those that are non-safety related.

The Importance of Data

There is a significant amount of research and data showing that drivers who have their licenses suspended and revoked for violating traffic laws are much more likely to be involved in crashes than those who are suspended for social non-compliance (non-traffic) reasons. Research shows that drivers who were suspended for unsafe driving have a six times greater propensity to be involved in a crash than the average motorist; and they are three times more likely to be involved in a crash than a driver whose license was suspended or revoked due to a social non-compliance issue.

This issue is extremely important to me—and all law enforcement across the country—because our staffs are very taxed in this day and age of limited resources and budget cutbacks. Knowing there’s a subset of drivers who are involved in a significantly larger number of crashes allows us to focus our limited resources on these problem drivers, which helps us best meet the needs of society to make our roads safer.

We now need to look at different ways to make sure that suspended and revoked drivers are not driving on our roads and endangering their fellow motorists. There needs to be a cooperative effort between law enforcement and DMVs to come up with a comprehensive strategy to use this data to our advantage to improve highway safety.