Why Michigan Should Hit the Brakes on Suspending Driver’s Licenses

Recent event shows why most suspensions hurt rather than help

In Michigan, it doesn’t take much to lose your driver’s license. Approximately one in 15 Michigan drivers had a suspended license in 2010, and over 95 percent of those suspensions had nothing to do with driving.

A recent Mackinac Center Issues and Ideas Forum, moderated by policy analyst Kahryn Riley, showed how this practice got so out of hand and why it should be reformed.

Panelist Evan Carter, a reporter for the Mackinac Center’s Michigan Capitol Confidential, discussed the state’s recently repealed “Bad Driver Tax,” — an early 2000s revenue generator for the state that resulted in thousands of suspensions.

James Craven studies criminal justice reform at the Reason Foundation and gave the highlights from his recent study: “Driver’s License Suspension Reform: The Right Road for Michigan.” The study catalogued all the different reasons why the state has suspended licenses, from unpaid parking tickets to failing to appear in court.

“Almost any other solution would be better than suspending their driver’s license,” Craven said, pointing out that a person who loses the right to drive often then becomes becomes unemployed. And a court is even less likely to collect money — say, a fine or child support — from someone who doesn’t have a job.

The third panelist was Kimberly Buddin-Crawford, policy counsel for the ACLU of Michigan. She told a few stories about her work with people who had lost their driver’s license, including a young single mother in Detroit who lost her license because of some unpaid traffic citations. She kept driving because she had no other way to get to her job, which paid only $700 a month. When she was pulled over again, she faced a $600 fine for driving with a suspended license. Her judge told her she had three weeks to pay the fine or face an arrest warrant.

It makes sense to suspend the licenses of someone who commits a driving offense. Anyone who drives recklessly, is drunk at the wheel or speeds excessively needs to take a break from the road. But Michigan’s current policy on license suspensions is counterproductive and heavy-handed. It does not improve safety and disproportionately affects people living in poverty. The state should consider taking a more sensible and compassionate approach to enforcing its laws and judgments.