March 05, 2020

Country roads, let them drive

I hate to admit it, but “Country Roads” isn’t my favorite West Virginia song. I’m not even sure it would make my top 10, assuming I knew that many.

The song has, however, given a clever nickname to House Bill 4958, an amazingly good bill that passed the House and is up for consideration in the Senate.

The nickname is “Country Roads, Let Me Drive.”

The bill in question would solve some huge problems, including providing a boost to the state’s notoriously low workforce participation rate. Basically, it would end the practice of suspending drivers’ licenses for people who can’t afford to pay court fines and fees.

Instead, it would create payment plans for those who can’t afford to pay the full cost, while also allowing them to drive. It’s also retroactive, meaning that people whose licenses are already suspended for those reasons can be eligible to participate.

This makes sense for all kinds of reasons.

Let’s start with the basics: West Virginia is a rural state with over 24,000 square miles of territory and 39,000 miles of roads. Most people who live here aren’t in a position to walk to work, to shop, to pick up kids or to seek medical assistance.

There are some great public transit systems in the state, but there are huge areas without them. Even if you live in a place with public transportation, it may not synchronize with your work schedule or other family timelines. And it would be a bit awkward to carry a week’s worth of groceries on a crowded bus.

This is a huge problem nationwide. In an October story, ABC News reported that 11 million Americans can’t drive because they can’t afford to pay off fines and fees.

I assumed that the number of people affected by this in West Virginia would be pretty high, but I was stunned when the state Division of Motor Vehicles reported that this affected an estimated 100,000 West Virginians. That’s roughly one out of every 20 people, or 5.5% of the population.

It’s an even bigger chunk when compared with the state’s workforce, which last fall was reported to be around 763,000.

West Virginia has long had the unfortunate distinction of having the lowest workforce participation rate. Last fall, ours was reported to be at 54.8%, compared with a national average of 63%.

It’s a pretty safe bet to assume that most of the 100,000 West Virginians who can’t drive for these reasons are of working age. Passing HB 4958 would remove a major obstacle to work and would help break the cycle of poverty for many West Virginia families. It would ease the path to recovery and/or re-entry for people dealing with addiction issues or legal issues.

It would also be a winning proposition for courts and agencies that are owed fines. In the year after California ended the suspension of drivers’ licenses for nonpayment, the state reported an 8.9% increase in non-delinquent collections. This was attributed to creating payment plans based on ability to pay.

In West Virginia and around the country, there’s a growing consensus across the political divide that driving while poor should not be a crime.

I hope the state Senate seals the deal.

(This came out as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail earlier this week. The bill's chances are pretty good at the moment.)

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