22 States in 5 Years: Bipartisan Lawmakers Coalesce Behind Curbing Debt-Based Driving Restrictions
10 States Enact Legislative Reform in 2021, But New Challenges Lie Ahead
By Priya Sarathy Jones, FFJC National Policy & Campaigns Director
Millions of people in the U.S. currently have their driver’s license suspended — not because they’re dangerous drivers, but simply because they can’t afford to pay a ticket or fine.
But in a rare show of bipartisan commonsense, lawmakers from around the country are taking action to stop the counterproductive practice of debt-based driving restrictions.
In the last five years, 22 states and D.C. have passed reforms to curb debt-based driving restrictions. In 2021 alone, the governors of 10 states — Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Utah, and Washington — signed legislative reforms. State lawmakers are also moving away from suspending driver’s licenses for missing a court hearing, with 8 states passing reforms since 2017.
At the same time, bipartisan federal legislation, the Driving for Opportunity Act — which would incentivize more states to stop suspending licenses for court debt — is moving through Congress, backed by a powerful coalition of strange bedfellows. (Add your voice in support here.)
Policymakers increasingly recognize debt-based license suspensions for what they are: bad public policy. Taking away someone’s ability to legally drive simply due to debt is bad for employment, bad for public safety, and disastrous for the millions of people whose lives are upended each year for “driving while broke.”
But hold your applause. As with any policy changes, the devil’s in the details.
While 22 states have enacted reforms, some of these new laws are much more meaningful than others. In fact, every single state continues to punish people for their economic circumstances through restrictions on driving. There is still no state that only suspends driver’s licenses for dangerous driving.
For advocates and lawmakers considering legislative proposals, it’s essential to ask these key questions:
- Are we working with and are our policy choices informed by impacted communities?
- Will the bill address Failure to Pay and Failure to Appear, if applicable?
- Are driver’s license suspensions, revocations, and non-renewals of licenses and vehicle registration (not related to dangerous driving) or other vehicle compliance requirements applicable in your state? Are they all eliminated in the bill?
- What are all the non-public safety reasons for driver’s license suspension in your state — like unpaid child support?
- Will the reform be retroactive?
- Will reinstatements be automatic or require individual action?
- Will reinstatement fees be waived?
- Will the licensing agency be able to identify every license record to provide relief?
- Does our state have an adequate and meaningful payment plan system?
- Will any debt relief be provided on the underlying fines and fees?
Although public opinion favors ending debt-based driving restrictions and dismantling the most egregious elements of our country’s fines and fees system, effective policy change is far from inevitable.
It’s up to us — as people who care about economic prosperity, public safety, and equal justice for all — to ensure that meaningful change continues as quickly as possible.