The high road to cutting down on dangerous driving.
by Elizabeth Ecker
Crashes happen. As a known risk of getting behind the wheel, drivers are aware that a crash can be an unfortunate outcome of taking to the road.
But many are being put at an unnecessary risk, with crashes involving drivers whose licenses are suspended on the rise, motor vehicle professionals have found. Much of the time, those suspensions have nothing to do with driving. Often they are related to theft, failure to pay an outstanding debt or some other reason deemed by local or state government.
Law enforcement and other officials spend thousands of hours dealing with arresting and ticketing these drivers when they could instead be working to keep the roads safe.
Making strides toward fixing this problem is an initiative slated for publication in February that will help licensing officials articulate the specific concerns with local policy makers.
Under grant funding by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a document, “Best Practices Guide to Reducing Suspended Drivers,” and a template for model legislation are now forthcoming.
“The basic premise is: Let’s stop suspending people for non-driving reasons,” says Brian Ursino, AAMVA director of law enforcement. “The research shows us that someone suspended for a driving reason is three times more likely to be involved in a crash than a person suspended for a non-driving reason.”
Those reasons number as many as 74 across states—by the count of the working group chaired by Georgia DMV Commissioner Rob Mikell.
“Our limited resources should be focused on truly dangerous drivers,” Mikell says. “This is a significant point that can easily be missed: This publication does not seek to use ‘suspension’ courts or shorter suspensions to address the issue, as the best solution is to use an altogether different means for changing non-driving related behaviors.”
The data speaks for itself, with the research conducted by the working group indicating 75 percent of suspended drivers continue to drive anyway.
The number of those suspended drivers is on the rise too; suspensions due to non-driving causes rose from 29 percent to 39 percent from 2002 to 2006.
Regular drivers are at risk of being involved in a crash with a suspended driver at a much higher rate when the driver’s license has been suspended for a driving-related cause. Research shows drivers suspended for driver behavior are involved in crashes three times more frequently than drivers suspended for non-driving reasons—and they’re six times more likely to be involved in a crash than a driver who has never been suspended.
“If every state legislature repealed current laws requiring suspension for non-driving reasons, we would have approximately 40 percent fewer suspended drivers on our roads,” Ursino says.
Changing the rules isn’t easy, especially because each state has its own laws regarding license suspension.
Wisconsin’s Department of Transportation, for example, released more than 100,000 non-driving related administrative license revocations in 2010 under Wisconsin Act 102. The legislation received bipartisan backing as well as support from the DOT, judges, law enforcement, district attorneys and the State Public Defender.
“It ended thousands of unnecessary non-driving related license revocations and gave law enforcement, judges, and the DOT more time and resources to focus on serious traffic violations that threaten public safety,” Mikell says.
The infractions that led to a suspended license include a very wide array—graffiti, bounced checks and fuel theft, to name a few.
“We’re targeting the plethora of state-passed laws for a multitude of non-driving reasons people are suspended,” Ursino says.
While it stands to reason that there may be alternatives to punishing these infractions, two in particular are proving more difficult due to the national child support enforcement program suspension and drug offender’s license suspension currently in place.
“There may be a perception that these suspensions are required to be passed as law in every state as absolute suspensions with no discretionary input to be considered by the legislatures or the courts,” Mikell says.
However, it is not the case across the board.
“A number of states have opted to impose these suspensions only where there is a link to unsafe driving or to provide an opt-out when the suspension would cause an impediment to current or potential employment or would cause an undue hardship,” he says.
Not only does the initiative aim to make roads safer, but it will save thousands of hours of time for enforcement officials and courts.
Take, for instance, Washington State Patrol (WSP). The WSP alone spends nearly 80,000 hours each year in the arrest, impound and adjudication of suspended driver cases that are due to non-driving offenses, according to the working group. These cases burden the court system, too, for which traffic offenses represent the largest number of charges prosecuted in many states and localities.
Of course, MVAs are positioned to save time and resources as well. If not for the high percentage of non-driving related suspensions, DMVs could focus on their core business of highway safety, the working group shows.
“The issue goes beyond just public safety to also include the costs of arresting, processing, administering and enforcing social non-conformance related driver license suspensions,” Mikell says.
While some of the costs are obvious, he says, there are others that are often overlooked.
“Once a state passes a requirement for a driver’s license suspension for a non-moving violation, the motor vehicle agency must prepare to be able to process the suspension including writing business requirements, writing code and training of staff. However, the suspensions are not being utilized in some cases, which makes the process even more cumbersome and costly.”
Solving the Problem
The forthcoming guide will include the best practices publication as well as the model legislation template with the goal of informing decision makers about the crucial safety impact of drivers who take to the roads despite having suspended licenses. The impact is twofold.
“The dramatic increase in suspensions has led to changes in public perception of the seriousness of this action, and the suspension is ‘watered down’ in value,” Mikell says. “Even when law enforcement, courts and society in general continue to view the license suspension with great seriousness, the resources to deal with the volume of today’s suspensions are depleted.”
The result is a less effective system, he says, for keeping dangerous drivers off the roads.
“The effect obviously includes the safety risks for those who share the roadways, but it actually extends directly and indirectly to most everyone in our society, particularly when we consider that drivers suspended for traffic safety related reasons are three times more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers suspended for social non-conformance reasons.”
The effort is the first of its kind to truly address the problems from the standpoint of both the drain on resources it causes as well as the greater issue of driving safety.
“I don’t think this is an end-all be-all, but by adopting this one philosophy it would reduce the number of suspended drivers by 40 percent,” Ursino says. “That’s hugely significant in reducing the burden on motor vehicle administrations, law enforcement, and the judiciary, and directly relates to improving traffic safety.”
View AAMVA's webinar on Suspended & Revoked Working Group Recommendations.