DC Council to keep drivers on the road with unpaid tickets

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DC lawmakers unveiled a plan on Tuesday to end the practice of preventing residents from renewing their driver’s licenses if they have unpaid traffic fines, despite concerns from several council members that leniency could exacerbate unsafe driving in the district.

Several council members argued that drivers who have been repeatedly fined for running red lights or driving well above the speed limit should not be able to renew their license without paying the fines for their offences, lest they not endanger other drivers and pedestrians.

But others said that suspending a person’s driver’s license is a severe economic hardship, hitting most often those living in low-income areas with lots of traffic cameras, and the city’s years-long practice of preventing low-income people from renewing their licenses, because they cannot afford to pay fines is unfair.

That argument won out, and the council passed the law – introduced by Member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) – to prevent the city from barring anyone from renewing a license for unpaid fines.

Councilors Charles Allen (D-District 6), Mary M. Cheh (D-District 3), Christina Henderson (I-At Large), and Brooke Pinto (D-District 2) were in the minority and voted to have an appropriate change narrowed the bill to allow the city to withhold license renewals from those who have at least three unpaid tickets for certain violations like speeding and running red lights.

“Make no mistake, we’re sending out a message telling people they can run red lights, they can significantly exceed the speed limit and they’ll be fine. They don’t have to pay for their tickets,” Cheh said. “We invite dangerous drivers. We are making our roads less safe.”

Some lawmakers pointed out that DC does not have alternative means of traffic enforcement that some jurisdictions do. The county doesn’t use points on driver’s licenses that cause a driver to lose their license after accumulating too many violations, and DC police have been warned not to pursue motorists and avoid most traffic stops for violations like speeding. That leaves most of the district’s traffic enforcement to automated cameras that broadcast fines to speeders.

“We’re running out of tools to address speeding violations and dangerous movement,” Pinto said.

Tuesday’s vote was the council’s second on the bill. It now goes to the desk of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).

Some of the lawmakers supporting the bill said the county needed to address dangerous driving, but didn’t see fines as the right way to do it.

“Are we only going to fine poor, low-wage people with tickets while wealthy reckless drivers can pay them off and reckless drivers can stay?” said Janeese Lewis George (D-Station 4). “We know that dangerous driving needs to be addressed through a systematic investment in road design…rather than trying to penalize or criticize our journey to safety.”

Others stressed the importance of ending the practice of barring low-income residents from driving. Debt-focused legal nonprofit Tzedek DC (whose name means “justice” in Hebrew) first drew attention to the issue with a 2021 report, saying the law could prevent tens of thousands of DC residents from getting their Renewing licenses, and that this is the practice, has had mixed racial implications, with black drivers being arrested for driving without a license 19 times more often than whites.

McDuffie pointed out that only Texas and Illinois share the district’s practice of tying license eligibility to unpaid fines. “It’s preventing many low-income DC residents from finding jobs. It prevents them from taking their children to school. It prevents her from going to the doctor. … It prevents them from accessing healthy food,” he said.

But councilor Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who ultimately backed the bill, warned that while black residents are disadvantaged by traffic fines, they are also at greatest risk if unsafe drivers are allowed to remain on the roads.

“I’ve looked at the accident data in terms of who dies in traffic fatalities, and there’s also a racial equity issue,” Silverman said, pointing to a Washington Post report on the far higher incidence of traffic fatalities east of the Anacostia River, where a history of racism in infrastructure planning has left more high-speed roads in low-income, mostly black neighborhoods. “It’s a matter of racial justice on both sides.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2022/07/12/dc-drivers-tickets-licenses/ DC Council to keep drivers on the road with unpaid tickets

Dustin Huang

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