Unlicensed To Drive 

Report finds state's motor vehicle laws punish the poor, result in uncollected debt

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOEY SMITH
  • Photo by Joey Smith

In 1996 Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, marking a major shift in national welfare policy. The federal measure, which vests key decisional authority in the states, replaced the existing entitlement scheme with programs designed to limit direct aid and promote employment opportunities for the nation's economically disadvantaged.

Yet for many low-income adults in Indiana — a majority of whom reside in either central cities or rural areas — the growing suburbanization of jobs and the lack of reliable public transportation create significant barriers in the transition from welfare to work. State policies that authorize driver's license suspensions for non-moving violations, combined with increased reinstatement fees, exacerbate these barriers, preventing many from becoming economically self-sufficient.

Suspensions for Non-Moving Violations

Today, a majority of Indiana's estimated 420,000 suspended motorists have lost their licenses, not for OWIs or habitually reckless driving, but for a variety of offenses unrelated to driving safety: unpaid traffic tickets, bouncing checks, truancy, fuel theft, failure to show proof of insurance, failure to pay child support, controlled substance violations, and even graffiti.

These policies can be traced to reforms at the federal level. In 1990, Congress enacted legislation compelling states, under threat of losing a portion of federal highway funds, to suspend the driver's licenses of those convicted of drug offenses. Six years later, federal lawmakers required states to impose the same penalty on non-custodial parents delinquent in paying child support. Since then, the driver's license has become a tool for states to induce socially acceptable behavior. The problem is, it doesn't work. According to a report from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, an estimated 75 percent of motorists with suspended or revoked driver's licenses simply continue driving.

Conflicting Policies Undermine Potential For Reform

In recognizing the flaws in this outdated policy, state lawmakers have recently taken steps to reverse it. In 2014 the General Assembly enacted legislation eliminating certain mandatory license suspensions for non-traffic offenses. The measure, which took effect on January 1, 2015, also created a "specialized driving privilege" program.  Under this arrangement, most suspended drivers are eligible for a probationary license, allowing them to travel to and from work and other designated locations during certain hours of the day.

While the new law is certainly a step in the right direction, other state policies directly undermine its potential for measurable reform. With growing budget restrictions in recent years, and a persistent reluctance in raising taxes, the state increasingly relies on fines and fees to generate additional streams of revenue. Driver's license suspensions have played a central role in this process. In early 2014, the BMV reported a total of $131 million in unpaid license reinstatement fees. Rather than analyze the underlying reasons for this uncollected debt, the legislative solution was simply to increase these fees in the hopes of recovering desperately-needed funds. Last year, reinstatement fees for persons suspended while driving without proof of insurance rose dramatically — in some cases as much as 233 percent. These costs are often prohibitively expensive and may prevent the restoration of driving privileges indefinitely, even for those who can secure the requisite insurance coverage.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOEY SMITH
  • Photo by Joey Smith

By failing to consider an offender's ability to pay, the system deprives itself of the very revenue it seeks to generate. The enhanced reinstatement fees were expected to bring in an additional $17,700,000 in annual revenue starting in 2015. Actual revenue generated came to only $9,788,770. Although a modest increase over the previous year, the amount fell far short of fiscal projections —nearly $8 million short.

Beyond these costs, driver's license suspensions significantly impact employers, government resources, and public safety. Police officers spend countless hours citing, arresting, and processing suspended drivers, imposing a significant strain on law enforcement personnel and diminishing efforts at ensuring highway and public safety. The BMV likewise invests significant time and resources in processing non-highway safety violations, detracting from what should be the agency's core mission of ensuring public safety. And in the state trial court system, traffic violations represent the largest number of prosecuted cases; adjudication of license suspensions for non-driving offenses only adds to congested court dockets.

New Report Recommends Changes in Policy

A new report published by the Health and Human Rights Clinic at the Indiana University McKinney School of Law examines these issues in greater detail. Among the report's key findings include the following:

more than 216,000 Hoosiers have suspended driver's licenses for unpaid traffic fines or failure to appear in court, a number roughly proportional to the total populations of South Bend and Evansville combined.

More than 67,000 state residents have suspended licenses for failure to show proof of insurance.

Approximately 8,000 Indiana motorists have been suspended for failure to pay child support.

Indiana is one of only 14 states (soon to be 12) with laws that authorize driver's license suspensions for controlled substance violations.

The report concludes by suggesting that state motor vehicle laws should be limited to (1) establishing standards for driving competency, (2) ensuring public safety by removing dangerous drivers from the road, and (3) penalizing those found guilty of reckless or negligent driving. To that end, Indiana should discontinue the use of license suspensions as a revenue-generating measure and tool for punishing behavior unrelated to safe driving.

To be sure, Indiana drivers must be held accountable for violating traffic laws. However, measures that appropriately consider an offender's ability to pay are likely to reduce  the economic burden on the state's most financially vulnerable residents while increasing their mobility and access to jobs. By implementing income-based payment plans, authorizing community service hours in lieu of monetary sanctions, or granting periodic fee "amnesties" to those who pay their base citation fines, the state is likely to recoup a significant portion of uncollected debt and get drivers back behind the wheel legally.  

Such policy solutions will certainly generate a degree of resistance from an uninformed public. However, if we expect Hoosiers to take a proactive role in achieving financial independence, the path to self-sufficiency begins with removing the most obstructive of economic roadblocks.


The Health and Human Rights Clinic (HHRC) engages in domestic human rights advocacy and litigation addressing the social determinants of health. HHRC interns, authorized to practice law under Rule 2.1 of the Indiana Supreme Court Rules, perform a full range of attorney activities: interviewing, counseling, researching, drafting, problem solving, negotiation and advocacy at court or administrative hearings. Many of the HHRC's case referrals come from Indiana Legal Services, the statewide Legal Services Corporation (LSC) grantee charged with the delivery of legal assistance to low-income residents of Indiana.

Driver's License Suspensions for Non-Moving Violations

1. Failure to show proof of insurance

2. Failure to appear in court or pay traffic offenses

3. Failure to pay 3 accrued parking violations within 30 days of notice

4. Payment to BMV with a dishonored check

5. Failure to complete driver safety improvement course

6. Failure to pay child support

7. Controlled substance violations

8. Fuel theft convictions

9. Graffiti

10. Truancy, suspension or expulsion from school

11. Juvenile delinquency (including running away; habitual disobedience of parents; curfew, alcohol, or fireworks violations; and any other act that would be a criminal offense if committed by an adult.)

12. Attempted purchase of alcohol by a minor

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