Race and class disparities in driver’s license suspension and consequences in California

By Bill Holloway
Driver’s license suspension, at least in California, is highly correlated with race and income. Ninety two percent of zip codes with higher than average license suspension rates due to failure to pay (FTP) or failure to appear (FTA) for previous infractions have below average household incomes, and nearly all zip codes where more than 6 percent of drivers are suspended due to FTA/FTP (three times the state average) have a high proportion of Black residents. In San Francisco, where Black residents make up just 5.8 percent of the population, they account for 48.7 percent of the FTP/FTA license suspensions.
These are just a few of the findings from a new report published by a coalition of legal and civil rights organizations that highlights the race and class discrepancies in driver’s license suspension and its effects in California. FTA/FTP suspensions, which are the primary focus of the report, are generated when someone fails to appear or to pay fines levied by traffic courts. Traffic courts in California, however, process infractions far beyond those that would normally be considered traffic-related, including loitering and failure to pay bus fare, as well as seatbelt violations and other more obviously traffic-related issues. People who fail to appear for traffic court may be issued an arrest warrant by the court or have a $300 fee added to their existing fine, and will have their licenses suspended indefinitely.
The report focuses on license suspensions because of the disparate impact that these suspensions have on minority and low-income communities. As more low-income people locate in suburbs farther from jobs and transit, a driver’s license becomes ever more important to reach jobs, schools, and other destinations. Additionally, many jobs and training programs require a driver’s license, and employers sometimes screen out those without a license even if their job duties do not require driving.
Those who have their license suspended due to FTA/FTP are ineligible to receive the type of restricted licenses offered to those convicted of DUI that would allow them to drive to work, school, or medical appointments. As a result, many drivers under suspension continue to drive despite the risk of jail time and additional fines and court fees that could further trap them in a cycle of poverty.
The report offers several recommendations to reduce the race- and class-based disparities exacerbated by license suspension.
Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.