In trouble, can’t drive

Nowadays driver’s license suspensions are passed out almost as freely as tickets themselves once were, yet they can often be economically and personally devastating to their targets [NPR via Brian Doherty]:

If you get caught drinking and driving in Wisconsin, and it’s your first offense, you lose your license for nine months. For a hit-and-run, the punishment is suspension for one year.

But if you don’t pay a ticket for a minor driving offense, such as driving with a broken tail light, you can lose your license for two years. …

The most common way that people lose their driver’s license in Wisconsin is not for drunken driving or other unsafe driving. It’s for failure to pay the fine on a ticket for a nonmoving traffic offense. Those make up 56 percent of all license suspensions in the state, according to statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Many of the jobs that enable indigent persons to climb out of poverty call for use of a car, as with cleaning jobs, which typically require driving to the homes or offices being cleaned. Many other jobs are not near bus or mass transit lines, while in other cases the job seeker does not live near such a line. Absent an income from work, there is less hope of paying off the debt to the state. So even if one adopts the cynical view that Wisconsin makes the penalty higher for missing a ticket payment than for a hit-and-run because it is obsessed with maximizing its revenues, it’s not necessarily doing that efficiently either.

More on petty fines and fees here.


  • “Nowadays driver’s license suspensions are passed out almost as freely as tickets themselves once were, yet they can often be economically and personally devastating to their targets”

    At least in Wisconsin, most people keep driving despite suspensions or even Revocations, so it’s not really as devastating as you think. The number one violation in our traffic courts is operating while suspended.

    In 2013 there were ~75K convictions for opperating while suspended.

    In 2012, the most recent year I can find stats for, there were ~33K DUI arrests

  • My wife is a home health aide in Westchester County New York. Without my ability to take her to and from work she would be in bad shape. She is working on getting her driver’s license. Some of her colleagues use the train, but that is costly and uses lots of their free time.

  • I can confirm that, at least in Florida, most DL suspensions are simply ignored by the recipients who continue to drive with near-impunity from the courts.

  • How many states break out the crime of “driving without a license” into different levels of severity? “Driving while license is suspended (or revoked)” would be a more serious version, but only “driving while license is suspended for unsafe driving” needs a strong response. Though usually opposed to forfeiting cars, I favor it for drunk drivers caught with their license already suspended for unsafe driving. Here the punishment would fit a dangerous crime.

  • Hugo,

    The problem with forfeiting cars for drunk driving is that the driver isn’t necessarily the owner (or sole owner) of the car.

  • I lost my license in Norfolk, Virginia for failing to carry insurance. The bite of it was the fact that I’d lost the car in the divorce, but the ex didn’t remove my name from the registration as was stipulated in the agreement. In 1997, it cost me $400.00 to get my license reinstated because that was the fee and DMV said it didn’t matter that I didn’t have a car, I had to pay the fee anyway.

  • Wisconsin has another thing with traffic violations (at least this was in place a few years ago.) They take “points” off your license for infractions, and the accumulation of too many points can result in suspension. But, one can plead to a lesser infraction that doesn’t take points off but still pay the fine for the higher infraction. This happened to my Mom. She was at Mitchell Airport picking up her sister and leaving she didn’t pay attention to traffic at a stop sign and hit another car. She lives in Illinois and the points didn’t matter, really, but she did the plea to a lesser offense anyway when I took her to court in Milwaukee.

    A problem with suspension and revocation of drivers licenses is that taking away the license doesn’t take the knowledge or physical ability to drive.

  • @MattS–

    A car could be restored to the owner if the suspended-license drunk was convicted of car theft. If the owner did not wish to prosecute (a friend or family member), he could instead be awarded a default judgement against the suspended-license drunk driver for the value of the car. Someone who knowingly lends his car to a suspended-license drunk does not deserve any sympathy.

  • @Hugo,

    What about jointly owned cars with more than one person on the title?

  • An error in my last post is corrected:

    @ Matt–

    (What about jointly-owned cars?)

    A joint owner cannot be convicted of car theft, so I presume you are asking about the default judgement for restitution.

    If one of the joint title-holders was the suspended-license drunk, his restitution debt would be pro-rated among all the title-holders. Each would have the option to collect or forgive his portion of the debt. Obviously the drunk would keep his own share of the debt, rather than double-paying for his lost share of the forfeited car.

    If the suspended-license drunk was not a co-owner, then the restitution debt could be pro-rated without any fuss.

    Perhaps there should be a mechanism, under unsafe-driving license suspensions, for co-owners of a car to protect their interest by suspending or revoking the unsafe driver’s ownership rights, allowing prosecution for car theft.

  • I can understand the suspension of a driver’s license for traffic violations, but, some states carry things a bit too far. My nephew got busted for pot when he was 15. He paid his fine and thought that was the end of it. Now seven years later he went to get his license. He got his permit, took his tests and got his license. Ten days after getting his license, he gets a letter from PennDot, telling him that he has to serve a six month suspension because of that pot bust.

  • The license-yanking is clearly out of control. It’s just ***so easy*** for legislators to sit back and agree that, why yes, a conviction for domestic violence (or some other barely-relatable thing) merits suspension of driving privileges… And often, the government will sneer that “driving is a privilege, not a right.”

    Problem is, it’s neither. It’s something in between. In areas without mass transit, it’s a NECESSITY.

  • I’ve always had an issue with our Government “granting” us privileges.