Federal law should ban suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid fees and fines

Driver’s licenses are issued to ensure that motorists drive safely. They should not be suspended for other reasons.

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Sun-Times Media

Driver’s licenses are issued to make our roads safer. Public officials should not use them as a club to force people to follow unrelated rules.

Thirty-five states and Washington, D.C., suspend the licenses of people who can’t pay various fines or fees, which is counterproductive. It makes it harder for people to get to jobs, schools, medical appointments and church. Police have to spend time enforcing the suspensions, essentially acting as debt collectors. Some people will drive anyway because that’s mostly how we get around in our nation today. If they do so, they risk jail time, which doesn’t help them pay their debts.

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Starting July 1, under the new SAFE-T Act, Illinois stopped suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets, automated red light and speed camera tickets, and parking tickets. But a similar federal bill, the Driving for Opportunity Act, which we support, is parked in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. It would give grants to states to encourage them not to suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees. Some studies indicate local governments collect as much revenue or even more after they stop suspending licenses.

People ought not pile up tickets by breaking traffic rules or parking illegally with impunity. But everyone makes mistakes, and no-parking spots are not always clearly marked. For people barely scraping by financially, hefty tickets can be more than they can handle. If people have no money, suspending a driver’s license is not going to help authorities collect the money due.

That’s not to say motorists should be empowered to ignore traffic and parking laws. Those rules are there for public safety and to keep illegally parked cars from clogging the streets and blocking fire hydrants or fire lanes. Scofflaws are a problem, but experience shows suspending driver’s licenses doesn’t fix that problem.

Once officials start revoking driver’s licenses for transgressions that aren’t related to safe driving, it’s tempting to use suspensions to enforce public compliance for a wide range of issues. Some states, for example, revoke licenses for missed child-support payments.

Driver’s licenses are issued to ensure that motorists drive safely. They should not be suspended for other reasons.

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