We’ve all done it. We’re in a hurry or are just not paying attention, and we drive over the speed limit. If we’re unlucky, we get caught.

For most of us, a speeding ticket is not a disaster, but it can quickly turn into a catastrophe if you can’t afford to pay or don’t make your court date. For many poorer North Carolinians, that is exactly what happens.

Generally, if you fail to pay traffic fines and court costs within 100 days, or if you fail to appear in traffic court when required, your license is indefinitely suspended. Reinstating it requires paying additional fees. In total, a person can easily owe hundreds of dollars. If you don’t have that kind of money, and many North Carolinians do not (according to the Federal Reserve, 44% of Americans could not afford an unexpected $400 expense), you are now stuck without a valid license.

Having a suspended license is much more than an inconvenience. If you can’t drive, you may not be able to get to work or pick up your kids after school. And many jobs require a valid driver’s license, including many jobs that don’t involve driving.

People who continue to drive risk being funneled into the criminal justice system with Driving While License Revoked charges, which triggers even more court fees and can lead to probation and even prison.

Today, an astonishing number of North Carolinians face this predicament. Data provided by the NC Division of Motor Vehicles in response to a request for public records suggest that nearly 1.2 million North Carolinians have a suspended license for failure to pay or failure to appear in court.

In North Carolina and elsewhere around the country many have begun to question the justice of what they call a “pay to drive” policy.

Last fall, Durham – which estimates that more than 40,000 of its residents have a suspended license – offered a pilot program to help those whose licenses had been suspended for at least 18 months and whose initial violation was relatively minor (no DWIs or reckless driving, for example). While in principle it was already possible to go to court and petition for relief, almost no one did it. Ryan Smith on the Durham city innovation team and Josephine Kerr Davis in the District Attorney’s office wondered what would happen if they made it easier for individuals to have their cases considered. Anyone with a suspended license could simply text or email their name and date of birth to enroll in the program.

Said Smith, “We expected a to get a few hundred texts and emails. Instead we got 2500 applications. We really touched a nerve. We had no idea we were sitting on top of such desperation.”

As a result of the program, the Durham District Attorney’s Office dismissed years-olds, minor traffic charges for over 500 residents that were preventing them from restoring their license. A few critics of the program worried that it might lead to less accountability. But the program doesn’t eliminate the need to pay for the original infraction, and in any event, losing your license for 18 months or more is already a steep penalty. As Davis puts it, “You can’t continue to punish people because they don’t have means to pay.”

This fall, Durham is planning to launch a more expansive effort to assist low-income residents in restoring long-term suspended licenses. The District Attorneys in Wake and New Hanover counties are exploring similar programs. It’s worth watching to see whether they succeed.

Credit: Charlotte Observer