As a legislator, I have worked to change the rules so that only those with driving safety violations are likely to lose their drivers’ licenses. However, I have remained concerned that outstanding debt to the Registry of Motor Vehicles could still be keeping many people from driving lawfully. Information recently provided by the RMV suggests that outstanding debt is a very limited problem. In light of this information, my recent proposal for an amnesty for RMV debt appears to be unwarranted.
Before I entered the legislature, practicing defense law in the courts, I saw how common it was for people to get tripped up by debt to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. If someone missed a court date, then their license would be automatically suspended and they would owe a $100 reinstatement fee that had to be paid before they could legally drive again. License suspensions could also result from convictions for drug possession or distribution.
Operating after suspension was one of the most common offenses before the courts and came to be seen as trivial. Many judges routinely resolved it by continuing the case to a future date to allow the person to pay their debt and then dismissing the case — “if you can bring back a valid license on your next court date, you will leave with smile on your face.”
Early in the last decade, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators developed a view that license suspensions for non-driving reasons should be minimized. Their position is that license suspension is an important safety tool if it is used narrowly to target dangerous drivers. If suspensions are used too widely and operating after suspension becomes a trivial offense, then the threat of suspension becomes less effective at protecting the public from dangerous drivers.
In 2015, the Massachusetts legislature effectively eliminated suspensions related to drug offenses. Then in the criminal justice reform package of 2018, we eliminated license suspensions for missed court dates, tagging, and vandalism. Additionally, we took steps to reduce the probability that delayed child support payments would lead to a suspension — we could not completely eliminate the possibility of suspension for delayed child support due to federal law.
In the current session, I proposed an amnesty for older RMV debt. I was laboring under the impression that there still might be a large number of people with license suspensions unresolved due to inability to pay reinstatement fees. I was concerned that this might unfairly affect lower income drivers. I proposed that: “Any licenses suspended for failure to pay fines and fees that accrued on or before July 1, 2020 shall be reinstated, subject to the completion of non-financial prerequisites to reinstating a license, and the reinstatement fee shall be waived.”
I asked the registry for data on outstanding unpaid fees and was relieved by what I ultimately learned. There are roughly 5 million licensed drivers in Massachusetts. However, as of March 2022, there are under 5,000 with outstanding reinstatement fees — less than 1 in 1000.
The basic reinstatement fee that might result from failing to pay a traffic ticket is $100. Among the 0.1% of drivers who have outstanding fees, the average reinstatement fee owed is over $700. This means that many of them have committed repeated offenses or have committed more serious driving offenses that result in higher reinstatement fees, like operating under the influence; they may also have outstanding fines which would be in addition to the reinstatement fee.
Although carrying reinstatement fees is rare, many people do experience brief suspensions and resolve them promptly. Since March 2018, over two hundred thousand Massachusetts drivers have incurred and paid reinstatement fees. On average they paid them within eleven days after they were eligible to pay them.
While any fixed fee structure hits lower income people harder than higher income people, it appears that the registry fee structure is modest enough that most people are able to resolve their obligations to the registry. Compared to the other costs of driving — vehicle ownership, insurance and fuel — registry fees are a minor barrier. The population of drivers with outstanding fees is much smaller than the population of low income adults — the poverty rate runs at about ten percent in Massachusetts.
We lack visibility into the specific circumstances of the 0.1% of Massachusetts drivers who have outstanding reinstatement fees. However, their circumstances certainly vary. Many of those with outstanding fees will resolve them soon. Some may have concluded that they should no longer drive. Some really should not drive. The deserving drivers for whom the fees are a sustained primary barrier to driving again are likely a very small subset within the 0.1%.
With this understanding, my amnesty proposal seems unwarranted given that so many people across income levels have made the effort and been able to pay. Additionally, an amnesty could encourage drivers in the future to defer paying motor vehicle debt in the hopes of another amnesty.
Technical Note and Sources
As noted above, the number of Massachusetts drivers with outstanding suspension debts appears to be under 5,000 as of March 2022. Everyone with a suspended license in the system is going to show as having a reinstatement fee liability provided that they are eligible for reinstatement. Those that are eligible for reinstatement, but have not yet paid, should appear in line 13 of the “By Account Type” tab in this spreadsheet. That line shows 4,330 reinstatement fee debts outstanding as of March 15, 2022. Note that a single customer could have more than one reinstatement fee liability to the RMV. So the unduplicated count of Massachusetts drivers with reinstatement fee liabilities is below 4,330.
However, there is a much larger group of drivers who are serving license suspensions and are not eligible yet for reinstatement. For example, a person with a prior operating-under-the-influence case who refuses a breathalyzer will have their license suspended for three years. Only when they are finished serving their suspension will they show up in the count of persons with outstanding reinstatement fees. There are 187,785 suspended drivers in the RMV’s current system which went live in March 2018; when you add older suspensions from the prior system, the total is 425,116 (according to a communication from the RMV dated March 29, 2022). This large population of people with suspended licenses annually generates roughly 20,000 cases of operating after the suspension of license according to data from the courts. According to a second spreadsheet from the RMV, which covers reinstatement fees paid over approximately the last four years, there are approximately 50,000 reinstatement fees paid per year.
On a different point, note that the RMV debt spreadsheet shows that most RMV debts are related to issuance of licenses (lines 6 and 10). These are not real debt items for the most part; rather they relate to people who started the license issuance process and did not complete it.