Friday, Jul 20, 2018
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License to drive up fees

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A set of bills, currently being considered in the Ohio General Assembly, would reform the state’s driver’s license suspension system.

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In Ohio, drivers can lose their license for a variety of infractions, including drunken driving, getting too many speeding tickets, or causing a crash that kills or injures someone. Drivers also can lose their license for reasons that have nothing to do with driving, such as failing to pay fines or show up in court.

As it turns out, most license suspensions in Ohio are for these non-driving-related reasons. Last year, more than one million Ohio drivers had their licenses suspended. Most of those were for failing to provide proof of insurance. The second most common reason was for failing to appear in court or pay fines.

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Ohio ranks second among the 50 states for the percentage of drivers whose licenses have been suspended — 5.62 percent — according to analysis by the auto insurance comparison-shopping site Insurify.

That is a lot of Ohioans who cannot legally drive to work or school, too often because they simply cannot afford the fees and fines to get their licenses back.

A suspended drivers license can create a snowball problem, particularly for the working poor who are perfectly safe drivers, but are unable to scrape together license reinstatement fees. Many may drive without a valid license, risking getting stopped and cited and fined again. Many cannot get work without a valid license. And if they cannot work, how are they supposed to pay their fines and fees to get their licenses back?

Three bills winding their way through the Ohio General Assembly are aimed at reforming Ohio’s license-suspension system. Together the bills would establish an amnesty program and repayment system, let judges impose community service in lieu of reinstatement fees, and allow limited driving privileges to necessary places (such as work) for some drivers whose licenses have been suspended.

Reinstatement fees are racking up around Ohio. In 2017, Ohio drivers paid more than $22 million to get their licenses back. And those are just the drivers who could afford to pay.

A Cleveland.com analysis showed that the poorest parts of Ohio see the highest rates of license suspensions, demonstrating that license suspensions too often function as a tax on the poor.

As one state lawmaker sponsoring a bill to address the issue put it, for someone making minimum wage, a $500 fee may as well be $5 million.

Michigan recently addressed a similar issue created by the budget-gap-filling 2003 driver responsibility fees. The Legislature passed and Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill earlier this year doing away with the fees and wiping out the $637 million owed by about 350,000 Michigan drivers.

Drivers who have demonstrated that they cannot safely be on the road or will not follow traffic laws should certainly be subject to license suspensions. License suspensions were created to keep unsafe drivers off the road.

But suspending licenses as a punishment to compel drivers to pay fines not only is not fair, it has created an expanding underclass of unlicensed Ohioans who otherwise would be law-abiding drivers eligible to get and hold jobs.

Ohio’s General Assembly should follow Michigan’s lead and do away with the punitive license suspensions and reinstatement fees. Take away the licenses of dangerous drivers and find another strategy to hold people accountable for breaking other laws.

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