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State Looks To Reduce Number Of Drivers Operating With Suspended Licenses

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Transportation officials and advocates for low-income Vermonters are looking for ways to reduce the number of Vermonters who have had their licenses suspended, often for offenses that have nothing to do with highway safety.

At any given time, more than 30,000 Vermonters are contending with a suspended driver’s license. But the suspension often relates to offenses that have nothing to do with a person’s road-worthiness. So Transportation Secretary Sue Minter says it’s time to get many of those drivers back on the highway.

On a brutally cold Friday back in March, Noah Haskins and 1,200 other people spent hours in line outside a Burlington courthouse for what was known as “Driver Restoration Day.” For one day, and one day only, residents from five counties could pay pennies on the dollar for outstanding fines – the fines that failure to pay previously had cost them their driver’s licenses.

“I’ve actually been struggling a lot because I haven’t had my license, so this will put my foot in the right direction and get me back on my feet,” Haskins said at the time.

The event, spearheaded by Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, was almost universally lauded as a common-sense way to get lower-income Vermonters back on the road. But it didn’t exactly solve the problem.

“I was surprised to learn when I became secretary and get weekly reports from the Department of Motor Vehicles about the number of license suspensions,” says Transportation Secretary Sue Minter. “And it is for a wide variety of reasons.”

Minter says the bottleneck of license suspensions didn’t take long to reappear. The number of suspensions relates largely to the broad scope of offenses for which it’s used as a penalty. Under existing policy, people can lose their license for failing to pay fines related to offenses that don’t have anything to do with highway safety, such as non-payment of child support, underage possession of alcohol, failure to pay a fine and a minor’s unlawful possession of tobacco. Failure to pay fines for speeding tickets or other highway violations is another major reason for license suspensions.

Under existing policy, people can lose their license for failing to pay fines related to offenses that don't have anything to do with highway safety, such as non-payment of child support, underage possession of alcohol, failure to pay a fine and a minor's unlawful possession of tobacco.

Chris Curtis, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, says about two-thirds of all license suspensions stem from failure to pay fines. Curtis says middle- and upper-income Vermonters aren’t going to let a several hundred dollar fine get in the way of their driving privileges.

“But if you’re living on Reach Up in the state of Vermont, and your total income is only $640 a month, which is the average benefit amount for a family of three, a $200 fine may as well be $2,000. It’s a third of their monthly income,” Curtis says.

Curtis is among the people Minter has assembled for a driver restoration task force, which will push for legislative reforms to solve the problem.

"If you're living on Reach Up in the state of Vermont, and your total income is only $640 a month ... a $200 fine may as well be $2,000. It's a third of their monthly income." - Chris Curtis, Vermont Legal Aid staff attorney

“Do we want to enable people to get to work legally, and pay their fine? Or force them essentially, trap them in this cycle of poverty, where they end up driving illegally?” Minter says.

One possible solution involves a conditional license that allows people to drive to work legally, even with a suspended license. Minter says it might also be time to sever the link entirely between non-highway offenses and license suspension.

Bennington Sen. Dick Sears, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee says drivers with suspended licenses will still drive, if it means getting to work or losing their job. And he says that means all drivers have an interest in seeing the problem curtailed.

“Part of the problem with people who drive without a license is they’re not insured. And so that creates additional headaches and additional problems,” Sears says.

"Do we want to enable people to get to work legally, and pay their fine? Or force them essentially, trap them in this cycle of poverty, where they end up driving illegally?" - Transportation Secretary Sue Minter

In a rural state like Vermont, Curtis says, livelihoods hinge on access to transportation. He says license suspensions make it even more difficult for poor people to count on reliable transport to a from work, school or doctor’s appointments.

“And if we don’t deal with this problem, we’re trapping people in a system that is fundamentally rigged against low-income people,” Curtis says.

Minter says she expects to unveil recommendations to the Legislature this fall.

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