DC Council will let drivers with unpaid tickets stay on the road

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DC lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a plan to end the practice of barring residents from renewing their driver’s license if they have unpaid traffic fines, despite concerns from several council members that clemency could aggravate dangerous driving in the district.

Several council members argued that drivers who have repeatedly received tickets for running red lights or driving well over the speed limit should not be able to renew their licenses without paying the fines for their violations, lest they continue to endanger other drivers and pedestrians.

But others said blocking someone from a driver’s license is a serious economic hardship, which tends to fall most often on those who live in low-income neighborhoods with many traffic cameras, and the city’s practice for years of barring low-income people from renewing their licenses because they can’t afford the fines is unfair.

That argument prevailed, and the council passed the bill — introduced by Kenyan member R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) — to stop the city from stopping anyone from renewing a license because of unpaid fines.

Council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Christina Henderson (I-At Large), and Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) were in the minority, voting for an amendment that reduced the bill to allow the city to continue withholding license renewals from those who have three or more outstanding tickets for certain offenses like speeding and running red lights.

“Make no mistake about it, we are sending a message that is going to tell people that they can run red lights, they can significantly exceed the speed limit, and nothing will happen to them. They won’t have to pay their tickets,” Cheh said. “We invite dangerous drivers in. We make our streets less safe.

Some lawmakers have pointed out that DC has no other means of law enforcement other than certain jurisdictions. The district doesn’t use points on drivers’ licenses that cause a driver to lose their license after racking up too many violations, and DC police have been warned not to pursue motorists and avoid most traffic. traffic stops for offenses such as excessive speed. That leaves most of the district’s traffic controls to automatic cameras that issue speeding tickets.

“We lack the tools to tackle speeding and dangerous travel violations,” Pinto said.

Tuesday’s vote was the council’s second on the bill. He is now heading to the office of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).

Some of the lawmakers who supported the bill said the district needed to crack down on dangerous driving, but didn’t see fines as the right way to do it.

“Are we just going to punish poor low-wage earners with tickets while wealthy reckless drivers can pay them and still be reckless drivers?” said Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4). “We know that dangerous driving must be tackled through a systemic investment in road design…rather than trying to penalize or impose our path to safety.”

Others have emphasized the importance of ending the practice of preventing low-income residents from driving. Debt-focused legal nonprofit Tzedek DC (whose name means “justice” in Hebrew) first drew attention to the problem with a 2021 report that the law could prevent tens of thousands of DC residents to renew their licenses, and that the practice has had a racially disparate impact, with black drivers being 19 times more likely to be arrested for driving without a license than white drivers.

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

But Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who ultimately supported the bill, warned that while black residents are disadvantaged by traffic fines, they are also at greatest risk of dangerous drivers being allowed to stay on the roads.

“I looked at crash data in terms of fatalities in terms of road fatalities, and there’s also a racial equity issue there,” Silverman said, pointing to a report from Washington. Post about the much higher incidence of road 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 equity on both sides.”

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