North Carolina is among the remaining states that automatically suspends a motorist’s driving privilege for failure to pay a traffic ticket. The corresponding fines and fees in addition to the ticket often more than $190 and are used for a range of things, including contributing to law enforcement retirement funds. if a person went to court and pled to a traffic ticket but was unable to pay the resulting costs and fine, the court sends notice to DMV and DMV revokes the person’s driver’s license (or privilege to drive if he or she never had a NC driver’s license). Because of this, more than 322,000 drivers in North Carolina have suspended driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic fines and fees. Not having a driver’s license can create barriers to opportunity by making it hard to get a meaningful job or affordable housing. It can also make it hard to attend doctor’s appointments or care for family members. Low-income families and families of color are disproportionately affected by driver’s license suspensions based on traffic debt.
Most individuals who enter this cycle of debt and suspension will never restore their driving privileges. Perpetually deprived of the legal ability to drive, and needing a way to get to work and care for their loved ones, some people continue to drive and risk deeper involvement in the criminal justice system. While the drivers may not be dangerous drivers, situations that lead them to drive without a license, registration, or insurance, put other drivers at risk and make our roads less safe. Others will stop driving and suffer severe isolation from the opportunities and resources necessary to satisfy basic human needs, including employment, housing, family unification, and access to health care. The indefinite, long-term loss of a driver’s license often has catastrophic impacts on entire families, especially in neighborhoods and communities without access to public transportation. More than 90 percent of all North Carolina residents use a car to get to and from work. The lack of a driver’s license restricts job mobility because workers are limited to work opportunities near bus routes or within walking distance.
Research found that without a car the typical resident can only reach 30 percent of jobs within 90 minutes. In several North Carolina counties, public transportation is not available or is not a meaningful option. Where there is adequate public transportation, it limits the number of workable hours to the schedule of the bus system and can significantly increase commute times. For example, a study found that in Winston-Salem, NC, bus riders spend 8.6 extra hours a week on their commute than they would if they drove directly. The same study calculated that this leads to a loss of approximately $4,360.20 in wages.
We are working with directly impacted people, concerned residents, and advocacy groups to limit North Carolina’s driver’s license suspension law, improve local policies and practices, and provide information to individuals impacted by debt-based driver’s license suspension.
1. Informing Individuals: Education and Outreach
State law allows individuals to go back into court and request the unpaid traffic ticket(s) causing driver’s license suspension to be eliminated or reduced. If you are facing driver’s license suspension because of an unpaid traffic ticket, view our informational website – www.resolvetrafficdebtnc.org.
2. Advancing Adoption of Local Policies: Long scale debt-relief programs
District Attorneys across the state are helping thousands of people in their jurisdictions by motioning the court to eliminate traffic-related debt that is causing long-term driver’s license suspension. Under the mass relief efforts, a district attorney set criteria, and based on the criteria, petition the court to remit the fines and fees for low-level, low-risk traffic offenses.
We are working with directly impacted people, concerned residents, and the NC Pro Bono Resource Center to expand district attorney-initiated debt relief programs across the state.
For more information about district attorney-initiated mass relief programs and to find out how to execute a program in your county, view this advocate toolkit.
3. Advocating Change to State Law: Senate Bill 490 (2021)
State law change is needed to eliminate or limit debt-based driver’s license suspension.
During the 2021 long session, state senators filed Senate Bill 490 to address debt-based driver’s license suspension. For more information about this bill, review our factsheet [insert factsheet].
Tell your law maker to support law change that will end or limit debt-based driver’s license suspension.