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Licenses as Leverage for Good Behavior

Laws threatening loss of driving privileges are a popular way of combating social problems--on and off the road.

December 20, 1996|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Losing your driver's license is no longer limited to how you behave behind the wheel.

Scrawl graffiti and lose your driver's license. Be a deadbeat parent or play hooky from school, and you could be depending on a friend for a ride. Smoke a joint--even if you're not in a car--and you could find yourself hoofing it.

The threatened loss of driving privileges has become a popular way of combating social problems--on and off the road.

Starting Jan. 1, California adds two new ways to lose your license.

Judges will be allowed to yank the licenses of drivers convicted of soliciting prostitutes from a car. And the Department of Motor Vehicles will be required to suspend the licenses of accused drunk drivers who fail to show up for court hearings.

A new law also takes away from judges the discretion to decide whether to suspend the licenses of convicted graffiti vandals and instead makes a one-year suspension mandatory.

These are among more than 300 new California laws affecting drivers. They range from requiring drivers to show proof of auto insurance before registering their cars to designating the junction of the Hollywood and Ventura freeways as the Bruce T. Hinman Memorial Freeway Interchange. Hinman was a CHP officer killed by a suspected drunk driver in 1995 while assisting stranded motorists at the interchange.

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Under another new law, call boxes, a fixture on freeways since the early 1960s, are now authorized for installation along more remote local roads.

The Prostitution Abatement and Neighborhood Protection Act of 1996 allows judges to suspend for up to 30 days the license of anyone convicted of engaging in prostitution within 1,000 feet of a home and involving the use of a car.

The new law requiring license suspensions of accused drunk drivers who fail to appear in court was introduced in response to a wide disparity between the number of arrests for driving under the influence and the number of DUI convictions, said a DMV spokesman.

Federal officials have proposed laws that would go even further. President Clinton earlier this year recommended that teenagers pass a drug test before receiving a driver's license. William Bennett, drug czar in the Bush administration, also advocated that anyone caught with illegal drugs should lose their license.

California passed a law in 1994 requiring that licenses be suspended for six months for any drug conviction, whether or not the offense was related to operation of a motor vehicle.

In pushing for the law, Gov. Pete Wilson's administration argued that those arrested on drug offenses were more prone to traffic accidents and violations, whether or not their arrest was connected to driving.

The National Motorists Assn., best known for successfully lobbying for repeal of the national 55 mph speed limit, has objected to taking away driver's licenses for non-driving offenses.

Referring to laws in California and other states stripping the licenses from parents who are behind in child support, Bob Morrow, the group's director of communications, said, "If the guy doesn't have a license, how's he going to get to a job so he can pay his child support?"

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The group recently spoke out against a Michigan law that takes away the driver's licenses of minors caught walking with a blood-alcohol content of 0.02%.

Other critics say those whose licenses are suspended or revoked just keep on driving.

California prohibits drivers from renewing their licenses if they have any outstanding parking tickets, but the law has largely not been enforced because DMV computers cannot yet match driver's licenses with the license plates of cars issued parking tickets.

The loss of a license is used as a penalty in other states as well.

Idaho suspends the driver's licenses of high school dropouts. Ohio suspends the licenses of students who take drugs or weapons to school. Oklahoma recently enacted a law allowing parents to revoke the driver's licenses of minor children if they believe their child can't handle the responsibility.

In California, there are three major reasons for which drivers had their licenses suspended or revoked in the 12 months ending in June. About 386,000 drivers lost licenses for driving without car insurance. Most were discovered when they were involved in traffic accidents.

Another 385,000 lost licenses for failing to appear for court hearings or pay fines. And about 321,000 lost licenses for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

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