Durable Growth, Transportation

The cost of a car-oriented world: Suspended licenses don’t mean what they once did

140313005 Lakeville StreetToday, I’ll write about suspended drivers’ licenses.  It’s a topic that may seem unconnected to urbanism, but the linkages are surprisingly robust.

A few days ago, there was a major traffic accident on the freeway just north of my town.  It was a chain reaction that began when the driver of a car carrier, in a moment of inattention, hit the car in front of him.  Quickly, eight vehicles were involved.

Luckily, no one was killed, with the worst injury being a broken arm.  But the freeway, a major commute route, was closed for hours.  The cost in lost time was substantial.

A day later, it was announced by the Highway Patrol that the driver of the car carrier had a suspended license.  The outcry was predictable, with the public wondering how a driver with a suspended license had been employed and what should be done to keep him off the road.

Thirty years ago, those might have been good questions.  Today, not so much.

In California today, seventeen percent of all drivers are carrying suspended licenses.  Seventeen percent!  In the eight-vehicle pileup noted above, there is nearly a 75 percent that a second driver also had a suspended license.

The proliferation of suspended licenses has roots in the drivable suburban paradigm.  I’ll connect the dots below.

As I’ve written many times, drivable suburbia was a theoretical experiment imposed on the U.S. in the halcyon days of economic growth following World War II, an experiment that soon ran into financial trouble.  The planners who had initiated the experiment recognized the failure and began to argue to abandon it, but the public, enthralled by single-family homes on large lots and wide boulevards, refused to let go.

As the public then became disenchanted with the costs of drivable suburbia, and began looking for villains everywhere except in the mirror, their eyes soon lit upon government and its assumed inefficiencies.   Eager to stop the presumed malefactor, property tax limitations soon began to proliferate.  In California, it was Proposition 13.  In other states, different names applied.

With property taxes constrained to less than the amount required to sustain the land-use pattern, policy-makers looked elsewhere for revenue.  (Over the years, a few office-holders pointed to the underlying problem of land-use and other costs of the modern world, but those troublemakers were soon flushed from public life.)  The citizenry quickly sniffed out attempts to bypass the intent of property tax limitation and imposed further measures limiting many other taxes and fees. But one item that wasn’t constrained was traffic fines.

The result was predictable.   The amounts of traffic fines soon grew, in many cases outstripping the ability of lower-income folks to pay.  And that non-payment became a further source of revenue with various penalties, fees, and license restrictions attached until rules were in place such that a $300 speeding ticket could soon became a $1,000 debt and a suspended license, both of which were swords hanging over the financial security of lower-income homes.

But that’s only part of the story.  The drivable suburban model also resulted in many homes, including the homes of low-income families, being built in places where daily tasks couldn’t be easily accomplished on foot or bike and where the density was too low for transit to work.  So a resident in one of those homes, in order to reach work with the hope of someday being able to pay the accumulating fines, had to ignore any license suspensions in order to reach work or, as in the case of the car carrier driver, to work at all.

It’s hard to imagine a more perverse scenario than one in which people are forced into their cars and then threatened with bankruptcy and jail time as the inescapable consequences of driving miscues, many of which are relatively minor.

But it’s the scenario that we created and have continued to perpetuate.

And even then there is one more aspect of the problem to be noted.  In communities dominated by low-income households, the percent of residents with pending arrest warrants, many related to unpaid traffic fines, can become staggering.  In Ferguson, Missouri at the time of the unrest, some estimate that over 75 percent of the residents had pending arrest warrants, a fact that had to increase the anger shown during the long nights of confrontation.

So the recent flare-up of antagonism between police and non-white communities has some of its roots in the financial failure of suburbia and the desperate attempt to find funds to prop up the failed experiment.

I recently had someone suggest to me that the problem could be avoided if people would just drive within the law.  If the epidemic of suspended licenses was due to DUI arrests, I’d agree.  But only 15 percent of suspended licenses are the result of DUIs.  The remainder are the result of more minor offenses, speeding, expired tags, rolling through stop signs, of which many of us are regularly guilty.  The difference is some of us can pay the fine, considering it an inconvenience, while others are pushed into a hole leading to ever larger fines, suspended licenses, and the threat of an arrest.

In the aftermath of Ferguson, the depth of the problem with traffic fines was recognized and many states, including California, implemented programs to lift license suspensions.  They were laudable efforts, but backsliding is inevitable.  The only real solution is to admit the failure of suburbia and to return our communities to a more financially sustainable model in which we needn’t threaten ruin to households that dare to drive a car even when a car is necessary to survive.

It wouldn’t be an easy transition, but the time is long past for us to commit to it.

When I next write, I’ll look at some news from the world of retail that has implications for urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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