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One in 10 motorists drives without a license, expert says

TAMPA — Hundreds of thousands of drivers rumble over Florida roadways each day.

Horns blare. Cars collide.

Less obvious: the unlicensed drivers among them.

In Florida, a state with about 15.5 million legal drivers, 2.2 million people currently have suspended or revoked licenses, authorities say.

Many get on the road, anyway.

Nationally, about 1 in 10 motorists drives illegally, says traffic researcher Robert Scopatz of Data Nexus Inc., who studied the issue for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

While some never had licenses at all, others lost them — more often for financial reasons than for behavior behind the wheel.

Failing to pay parking tickets, neglecting child support payments or skipping a court hearing can trigger a suspension.

The approach has supporters.

"I've seen a lot of child support get paid once I see that person get their license suspended," said Holly Grissinger, assistant state attorney in Pinellas County.

But drivers sometimes stay in financial trouble for years, fines and suspensions piling up.

When drivers get caught defying license suspensions, civil matters turn into criminal ones.

The AAA traffic safety organization estimates that two-thirds of people barred from the road keep driving. One fifth of fatal crashes involve an illegal driver, the group says.

Maj. Michael Perotti works at the Hillsborough County Jail, where suspended drivers get booked at all hours.

"I think it's very obvious that debt issues and inability to pay can snowball on a person," he said.

• • •

Losing a license could be easier than many people realize.

Just ask John Campbell, 62. On a day like any other, he drove his BMW through a SunPass lane. His credit card number had changed, but he hadn't updated his SunPass account.

Fast forward five weeks. Campbell, who works in the hospitality industry, sat parked at Tampa International Airport, waiting to pick up a guest.

A police officer ran his tag and told him his license had been suspended.

Campbell says the unpaid toll had turned into a court appearance, which he missed while he was traveling in Mexico.

He says the ordeal cost him $1,000. His guest drove the pair home from the airport.

"Talk about embarrassing," said Campbell.

• • •

That's how it happens.

First, a driver gets a ticket. If it goes unpaid, then the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles sends a letter, announcing a looming license suspension.

If drivers ignore it, they invite a criminal charge.

"That almost always destroys their chances of pulling themselves out of a hole," said Hillsborough County Assistant State Attorney Douglas Covington. "There is a tremendous economic impact on individuals."

For reinstatement, drivers have to pay off tickets, court costs, and sometimes even collection costs.

"Some of it is a trap," said Hillsborough County Judge James Dominguez, "and some of it is the defendant's fault."

He recalls a man who had to pay $17,000 to get his license back. It took 27 months.

Dominguez hears suspended license cases every week in Tampa. He delivers stern lectures and sends drivers to jail when they're a danger to others.

He takes a different view of those in financial turmoil.

"It's more beneficial to the system if we do something to encourage them and assist them to get their license," he said.

He's among an array of judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials who see the down side to license suspensions, which can escalate into felony charges for those who keep driving.

"I personally have changed my philosophy a little," said Pinellas County Judge William Overton. "There are too many habitual traffic offenders now. I've changed just because of the sheer number. A lot of times we're able to do some things to help the individuals out."

Grissinger, the Pinellas prosecutor, notes that there's an easy way to stay out of jail and avoid financial turmoil: Obey the suspension notice.

"Once you get that first one you should stop driving," she said. "It only becomes a vicious cycle if you continue to drive."

Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or enewcomer@sptimes.com.

By the numbers

In the first seven months of this year, Florida imposed millions of sanctions on drivers, often because they owed money. Many sanctions were temporary, and some drivers piled up more than one, which explains why these numbers are large.

6,172,565 total sanctions as of Aug. 1, some of which included these:

2,479,525 suspensions for unpaid traffic fines

948,448 suspensions for ignoring a traffic summons

460,807 revocations for driving under the influence

370,877 suspensions for failing to pay court obligation

253,991 suspensions for not paying child support

189,670 suspensions for refusing to take a breath, urine or blood test

180,984 suspensions for driving under the influence

45,733 suspensions for accumulating 12 points within 12 months

Source: Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles

One in 10 motorists drives without a license, expert says 09/05/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 5, 2011 9:50pm]
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