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Fee to Drive: How Punishment, Poverty, and Policy Shape the Lives of Suspended Drivers

The Project

My dissertation contributes to our understanding of the reproduction of racial inequality by examining how civil penalties, like debt-based driver’s license suspensions, shape the lived experiences of motorists. While monetary sanctions are often characterized as less punitive than other forms of punishment, contemporary works find them to be disproportionally harmful to those with limited ability to pay and by extension, people of color. This project adds to the growing literature on the consequences of non-payment of monetary sanctions by examining how minor traffic offenses can trigger a cascade of collateral consequences that many drivers struggle to resolve. In collaboration with community partners in Durham, North Carolina, I recruited and interviewed 39 drivers with suspended driver’s licenses between May and December 2021.


While some consequences are universal, others vary by the way respondents transport themselves from place-to-place. Respondents in this study can broadly be categorized as drivers, or those who continue driving follow their driver’s license suspension, or riders, who no longer drive.


Job Loss


Respondents, whether they are drivers or riders, describe instances of job loss following suspended driving privileges. For many, job loss is the result of workplace policies that require a valid driver’s license to be eligible for employment. When respondents no longer meet eligibility requirements, they can be terminated from their roles. Respondents who commonly experienced job terminations because of ineligibility were men who held driving positions such as delivery drivers, transportation workers and car valets. Further, riders describe experiencing job loss because of their dependence on alternative transportation options. The riders in my sample rely on public buses, rides from family and friends and ride share services to travel from place-to-place. The unpredictability, limited range, and cost of these options prevent riders from reliably reporting to work and often leads to theirs being terminated. Others experience a reclassification of their duties. Riders report that both outcomes typically result in a significant loss of income. Not all riders are subject to employment disruptions, however. A small subset of riders benefit from managerial discretion where employers may overlook driver’s license requirements, tardiness or even provide access to transportation to support riders in maintaining their jobs. It is important to note that managerial discretion is employer-specific and is not guaranteed once a rider transitions to another opportunity.

Limited Job Mobility


Respondents also describe how workplace policies and dependence on alternative transportation options stifles job mobility. When employers require a background check as a condition of employment, both drivers and riders describe a reluctance to pursue certain employment opportunities. In North Carolina, traffic offenses like driving with a suspended or revoked license are classified as criminal offenses reportable during background checks. Respondents describe a reluctance to pursue some employment opportunities for concern that employers will pass them over because of their suspended driver’s license. Riders also name unreliable transportation options as an impediment to their job mobility. Riders value being people of their word describe a reluctance to commit to jobs when their transportation options may not allow regular and timely attendance. Respondents in my study are intentional- they engage in thoughtful cost-benefit analyses and forgo opportunities they perceive to have a low probability of success. Instead, respondents choose to direct their time and efforts where they are more likely to pay off. Consequently, respondents describe feeling “good jobs”, like those with higher wages, benefits, and predicable schedules, are not available to them. Instead, they find themselves “stuck” with the lower—quality jobs they can get.     


Emotional Suffering

Finally, respondents describe the consequences of their suspended driver’s license as a source of great emotional suffering. Respondents take pride and ground their identities in the ability to financially provide for their families. When their stream of income is disrupted because of job loss, role reclassification or the inability to secure higher wages, respondents describe instances of depression and feelings of shame, stress, anxiety, and hopelessness. Among the drivers who take risks because they must fulfill job, parental and other household obligations, respondents report feelings of fear, paranoia, and anxiety while on the road. Respondents attribute these feelings to concerns about traffic stops, and by extension, police encounters. Drivers recount the strategies they draw upon to reduce the likelihood of being stopped, which, in turn, moderately relieves the anxiety that accompanies their unlawful driving. Some inspect the various components of their cars to confirm parts are in working order prior to leaving home. Others avoid heavily policed areas and travel the same routes each day. Many respondents draw from religion and spiritual practices, including prayer, before and during travel. The reassurance that God is with them instills the courage needed to carry on despite their fears.

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