The dangers of driver’s licence suspensions

Commentary, Peter Shawn Taylor

Make the scofflaws pay. And if they won’t pay, punish ’em.

There’s an understandable lack of public sympathy for deadbeats such as parents who skip out on family support payments or drivers who rack up huge parking ticket fines. And one of the simplest options for punishment in our car-centric era is to take away the ability to drive until those debts are paid. A driver’s licence is a government-issued privilege after all, so government ought to deny you that privilege if you’ve been bad for whatever reason.

But we should be very careful when suspending driver’s licences for judicial convenience. In many cases, taking away a driver’s licence can entail a punishment far greater than the crime itself. Often the guilty party is left poor and unemployable and a permanent burden on the rest of society. And that serves no good purpose.

It stands to reason that a driver who speeds excessively, drives drunk or is guilty of other serious moving violations should risk losing his or her licence. Anyone who poses a danger to others on the road doesn’t deserve to drive. Yet that’s not the case when it comes to suspensions for crimes or misdemeanours entirely unrelated to driving ability.

Most provinces currently suspend driver’s licences for non-payment of court-ordered child, spousal or partner support. Saskatchewan suspends the licences of johns who fail to complete its prostitution-offender program. Metro Vancouver’s TransLink transit authority was recently given the power to suspend British Columbia driver’s licences for transit-bylaw infractions. So you can now lose your right to drive because you skipped out on bus fare and didn’t pay the fine. Clearly none of this has anything to do with how well or safely someone can operate a vehicle.

In Ontario, municipal groups have been lobbying long and hard for the right to suspend driver’s licences for unpaid fines related to offences of all kinds − from trespassing to failing to scoop up after your dog. While the government rejected these aggressive demands, recent changes to the Highway Traffic Act will still give the province new ways to control citizens’ right to drive by denying all licence-plate renewals for such things as unpaid parking tickets.

The trend across Canada is clearly toward making much broader use of driving privileges as a catch-all punishment tool without regard to actual driving skill. But however logical it may seem to pursue unpaid government debts with such vigour, recent experience in the United States points to the massive personal and social costs associated with indiscriminate suspensions of driver’s licences.

Desperate to increase revenue from all sources, many states have come to rely on threats of licence suspensions as their preferred means of enforcement when collecting unpaid fines of any type. And while this tactic may improve payment rates for the majority, a substantial minority, primarily those in the low-income bracket, often find themselves unable to pay and vulnerable to the consequences.

In Tennessee, nearly 90,000 drivers have lost their licences for unpaid fines since 2011. The licences of more than four million Californians have been suspended in the past eight years for the same reason.

Given the well-proven link between holding a valid driver’s licence and being able to find and/or keep a job, this sanction can have a devastating effect on personal income and self-worth.

“The loss of a licence is a major threat to economic security,” said a report last month from a coalition of California legal aid groups decrying the statewide increase in licence suspensions. As proof, it offered the painfully bizarre tale of Alyssa, who forgot to inform the licence bureau of an address change, overlooked the associated fine and promptly had her licence suspended. She then lost her job as a bus driver and is now on welfare. Her original $25 fine has since risen to $2,900 because of punitive extra fees and add-ons. “Without a licence she cannot get a job, and without a job she cannot make payments,” the report said.

The role of driver’s licence suspensions in perpetuating a cycle of poverty and racial tension was specifically mentioned in a recent U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the riots in Ferguson, Mo. Suspending driver’s licences for non-driving offences can quickly turn into a kind of Dickensian debtor’s prison, consigning unfortunates to a lifetime of unemployment and poverty. Canada should avoid such policies at all costs. There are many ways to pursue bad debts. Suspensions of driver’s licences should be for driving-related offences. Full stop.

This op ed was originally published by The Globe and Mail on Friday, June 5, 2015: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/the-dangers-of-drivers-licence-suspensions/article24813741/