Topeka, KS— Kansas wants to give some people with suspended driver’s licenses at least some of their driving privileges back. But over 30,000 people miss out.
People who had their license suspended because they didn’t pay a ticket can apply for a restricted driver’s license. But in 2021, only 1,800 of the 39,000 Kansans who qualified for that help got it. A suspended license doesn’t let someone drive at all. A restricted license allows for some errands, like commuting to work, school, day care or picking up groceries.
“It’s not just an annoyance,” said Wesley McKain, policy and development manager at the Wyandotte County Public Health Department. “Someone not having a driver’s license has a lot of impacts on their ability to get to the doctor, their ability to get to their job, their ability to get to education.”
Kansas says it has simplified the application process, but drivers still struggle through it.
Kansas Legal Services hosts license restoration events to help people apply for a restricted license. Those events help people fill out paperwork and offer lawyers to answer questions so people can get a restricted license. But, Marilyn Harp, the group’s executive director, says half the people they help fail to get approved.
“There’s lots of pieces to it,” she said.
The low acceptance rate could be because not many apply or a lot are rejected, though it isn’t clear. Data from the Kansas Department of Revenue shows that 1,600 people applied in 2021 and 1,800 were accepted. Those numbers don’t match because the agency only tracks online requests and not paper applications.
In 2019, Kansas suspended the sixth most driver’s licenses per capita in the country, and Harp says Kansas still has thousands of drivers with suspended licenses.
Lacey Black, solutions manager in the Division of Vehicles at the Kansas Department of Revenue, said KDOR is making the process easier to navigate. Fees have been removed and letters informing drivers of their suspension tell them how to apply. But that’s assuming someone’s address is updated properly.
Black said people commonly have an outdated address on their license, meaning important information is mailed to the wrong place. Updating their address is one of the most important things drivers can do, she added.
She said her agency has worked with the Legislature to remove barriers to the process. But some still worry this traps people in a cycle of poverty by making it hard, for instance, to get to work.
McKain, the Wyandotte County official, said transportation and well-being are linked.
“So many things impact health,” McKain said. “Income is very much tied to health outcomes in our country.”
The health department began working on license suspension reform, but that has mostly shifted to the courts now. Administrative Judge Brandelyn Nichols-Brajkovic said too many drivers licenses are suspended because judges lack discretion in the process.
Someone’s license is automatically suspended if they don’t pay their tickets. The Legislature considered taking away the state’s power to suspend licenses over non-payment of fines and fees, but the bill stalled in a Statehouse committee.
“It eliminates an important tool used to ensure compliance with traffic code,” said John Goodyear, staff attorney for the League of Kansas Municipalities, back in 2020. “Without the prospect of a suspension for the non-payment of fines, there is nothing to keep an offender from refusing to pay the fines for traffic citations and continuing to drive.”
People should pay costs, but Nichols-Brajkovic said suspending someone’s license for mistakes — like not having insurance — isn’t productive. Some judges said a restricted license is a more appropriate punishment.
Nichols-Brajkovic wants the Legislature to update statutes to give judges more discretion.
Kansas has passed reforms to the program in recent years. A 2021 law lets drivers ask judges to reduce or waive fines and fees that impose a significant financial hardship. It also removed a 90-day waiting period for someone to get their license back.
“Most (judges) aren’t here to destroy lives although it can definitely feel that way if you are in the suspended license cycle,” Nichols-Brajkovic said.