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Driving isn’t cheap. Between rising fuel costs, maintenance, insurance, vehicle taxes, and parking, transportation costs can be as high as 20% of a household’s overall annual budget. For that reason, many low income households face a steep transportation barrier which can keep them in poverty. Owning a vehicle is expensive, but the mobility that comes with it can mean the difference between finding or keeping a job and remaining unemployed. To make matters worse, a new report in The Washington Post has found that millions of Americans have had their driver’s licenses suspended due to unpaid court costs stemming from traffic tickets, a practice some advocates claim unfairly punishes the poor.
The Washington Post’s analysis found that the licenses of more than 7 million people nationwide have been suspended for unpaid administrative debt or court fees. At least 10 percent of those drivers live in three states alone: Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. Nine did not provide data or do not collect such data, so that figure could actually be much higher. In Virginia alone, 647, 517 drivers have lost their licenses as of late 2016 for unpaid fines and administrative costs. Higher than 9.0% of the populations of Kansas, Vermont, and Virginia have lost their licenses due to traffic debt.
The practice of suspending driver’s licenses due to administrative debts is often criticized by anti-poverty groups. Many states use these fines as a means of generating revenue, and while the fines likely persuade many drivers to avoid breaking the law, many low income households or individuals lose their licenses over relatively small fees. The loss of a license can often mean the loss of a job, making these debts part of an inescapable cycle.
While some states are trying to reduce these debt-related suspensions, the practice is still widespread. Is it time to revisit the penalties for traffic debt to try and remove barriers to transportation, or have these drivers gotten what they deserve?