12 ways good drivers lose their licenses
Bad drivers probably shouldn't be on the road. On this point, people agree.
Lawmakers, though, have added their own logic. They think many good drivers shouldn't be on the road either, like those who litter or fail to vaccinate the dog.
Dozens of no-no's unrelated to highway safety can get your license yanked.
"It's evolved into something that is used to gain social conformance," says Rob Mikell, a former prosecutor and now commissioner of the Georgia Department of Driver Services. "But at some point it began to overwhelm the system."
The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) estimates that about 7 percent of U.S. drivers have a suspended license at any given time. Of those 15 million drivers, 39 percent lost their licenses for reasons that had nothing to do with driving. (See “Car insurance with a suspended license.”) A large number of them will need to ask their insurance companies to file an SR-22 as part of their path toward license reinstatement.
What kinds of reasons? Read on. (For a look at laws by state, see "59 ways to lose your license.")
Unpaid parking tickets
Laws vary by state. A violation that triggers a license suspension in New York may not do so in Oklahoma. But every jurisdiction in the United States and Canada has at least some - or many - laws on the books that suspend driving privileges for things that have nothing to do with driving.
"The legislatures have been thinking it would be a good idea to encourage people to pay their fines," says Nichole Yunk Todd, a founding director of Wisconsin's Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability. "We cannot find a state that doesn't do it."
One of the most common ones is for unpaid parking tickets. Given that late fees typically accrue, and a suspension can last until the fine is paid, you sure don't want to land a $600 ticket in Seattle or a $1,000 ticket in San Francisco.
Borrowing the wrong car
Molly Gena, a lawyer with the Legal Action of Wisconsin, had a client who lost her license after the relative's car she'd borrowed was stopped for suspended registration.
What many people don't know is that tickets for vehicle violations are issued to whomever is driving the car at the time. This is true even if it's an equipment violation, and even if the driver has no way of knowing about it.
"The vehicle was not registered because of parking tickets," says Gena. "It was a family member's car. But she didn't know."
The woman, a single mother, was unable to pay a $200 ticket that followed, and her license was suspended for two years. She landed a good job shortly thereafter, but without transportation had to quit.
Possessing alcohol as a minor
"Even if there's no driving involved, that's a common license suspension," says Mikell, the former prosecutor.
He doesn't supports kids drinking and driving, of course. But this suspension affects teens caught with booze even when there is no car in sight. Teens can also be denied driving privileges for a prior incident of tobacco possession or truancy.
"There's a public policy reason that their license is suspended, not a public safety reason," says Gena, the defense lawyer.
Driving without insurance
In 32 states, judges can suspend someone's license the first time they are caught driving without insurance. In seven states, first-time offenders can also be jailed.
The Consumer Federation of America, which asserts that many drivers are uninsured because they can't afford the cost, found that states with harsh penalties for uninsured drivers don't enjoy lower rates of uninsured drivers, indicating that suspensions don't serve their intended purpose.
Opponents aren't suggesting people drive uninsured vehicles. Rather, they argue, license suspensions inhibit people's ability to pay for the necessary insurance. Someone whose driver's license is suspended cannot legally drive a friend's, family member's or employer's automobile, making it difficult to find and keep a job.
Bounced or bad checks
Many of the infractions that trigger a license suspension revolve around unpaid bills. Create a big enough carrot - in this case a driver’s license - and people will pay. So goes the thinking.
But try getting a job to pay those bills without a license, say opponents.
A survey by Rutgers University found that 42 percent of respondents lost their jobs after losing their driver's license. Of those, 45 percent were unable to land a new job. For those that did, 88 percent took a drop in pay.
"Even if you don't need to drive to get to work, driver's licenses are being used by employers as a screening method for employment," says Yunk Todd, a founding director of the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability.
Litter, overdue library books and more
Mikell, of the Georgia Department of Driver Services, says it's rare for judges to suspend driver's licenses for things like overdue library books. Once unpaid fines mount, however, people's licenses are at risk, regardless of whether they pose a risk to other drivers.
An analysis of federal crash data by the AAMVA found that 7 percent of drivers suspended for reasons unrelated to driving ended up getting a moving violation later, compared with 34 percent of those suspended for driving-related reasons.
Overdue student loans
At least two states, Iowa and Montana, can suspend a person's driver's license for unpaid college loans, says the AAMVA.
These and other suspensions unrelated to driving sap public safety resources, arguably posing a greater risk to other drivers. A Missouri State Highway Patrol colonel did the math in 2011 and found that, at two hours per arrest, his department spent 7,594 hours dealing with people who'd been suspended for non-driving reasons.
An officer who runs a license on the side of the road sees only that someone's license has been suspended, not why.
"The question is, how many of our resources have to go into non-driving related offenses," says Mikell, chair of the AAMVA's working group on suspended drivers. Police are passionate about highway safety, he said, "And going after those people is not furthering the mission of making sure that folks on the road are safe."
Failure to pay child support
The federal government generally leaves driver licensing issues to the states. But occasionally it uses its hefty bankroll as leverage, in this case essentially forcing states to take away the licenses of anyone delinquent on child-support payments.
States that don't comply aren't eligible for federal funding of their child-support enforcement programs. All 43 states surveyed by the AAMVA complied.
In Nebraska, people who don't make their alimony payments can also lose their license.
More than 200,000 Americans a year lose their driver's licenses for drug offenses that occur off the road, according to The Clemency Report, a research publication. Most are for marijuana possession.
These sometimes-draconian measures - in Massachusetts, for example, possession of any illegal drug within 1,000 feet of a school results in an automatic five-year suspension - are a relic of a decades-old federal war on drugs.
In 1992, the U.S. government passed a law requiring states to enact mandatory six-month suspensions for any drug convictions or lose up to 10 percent of their federal highway funding.
Thirty-four states, however, have since opted out. The remaining16 states are concentrated in the South and the Northeast outside New England. These, according to The Clemency Report, "are home to 141 million people, including most of the nation's minority population and a disproportionate share of the poor."
Prostitution, public intoxication and more
We're not saying these are related, just that plenty of behaviors deemed socially unacceptable can cost you your driver's license, even if none of them are undertaken behind the wheel of a car.
Once you lose your license, you'll probably feel worse.
A 2006 state of New Jersey survey identified the psychological and social repercussions: 83 percent of those who'd lose their driver's licenses experienced increased stress; 81 percent reported experiencing a loss of freedom; 74 percent said it placed a strain on family, friends and colleagues; 69 percent felt ashamed; and 68 percent said they were too embarrassed to tell anyone.
Failure to appear in court
It's probably no surprise that if you're struggling financially you're more likely to lose your driver's license, no matter how safe a driver you are.
The failure to either pay a fine or appear in court to contest it is a common trigger of license suspensions, says Gena, a lawyer who helps reinstate licenses. The problem, she said, often begins with a traffic stop for a simple equipment violation: a broken headlight, a missing front plate, an expired tag.
People may be unable to pay the fine, but see no point in contesting it in court. Doing neither leads to additional charges and mounting fines.
"That's mostly what I see. I don't see a whole lot of safety violations," says Gena. "People just don't know what the consequences are if they do nothing."
Fuel theft, piracy and a lot more
"In Wisconsin there are 98 ways to lose your license, and we keep adding more," says Yunk Todd, of the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability. "We like to find ways to penalize people, and find ways to take away their privilege to drive."
Add to the list of offenses in some states: misuse of a handicap space; immigration or visa expiration; graffiti; defacing signs; flying while intoxicated.
"The most common misperception is that the threat of a license being suspended does change people's behavior," says Mikell, the former Georgia prosecutor. "But 75 percent of the folks who are suspended continue to drive anyway."
"The stigma is gone," he adds. Plus, "people are so dependent on their cars, they just don't know what to do."