On the road again: Regaining driving privileges sets Virginians up for success

October 13, 2023 1:39 pm

(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

It’s the morning of your first day at a new job, the first job you’ve had in a few years and one you desperately need. You rise, get dressed, scarf down some cereal and, if you’re very lucky, fire up your computer to work remotely. If you’re less lucky — or if you just prefer commuting and working face-to-face with other humans — you rush out of the door, hop in your vehicle and drive to work, or get there via public transportation. 

But if you’re one of the thousands of residents of the commonwealth who have lost their driving privileges and can’t access a bus or train, you’re just out of luck.

There are currently about 6.3 million licensed drivers in Virginia, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. From July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022, there were 11,212 people who lost their driving privileges for the first time because they drove on a suspended or revoked license; another 4,408 people faced the same consequence for driving with a suspended or revoked license for the second time. That’s nearly 16,000 citizens of the commonwealth who can’t drive to work, doctor’s appointments or even the grocery store, and these figures, the latest data available from charitable organization Drive-To-Work, don’t show the full scope of the problem.

Va. law that seizes licenses for unpaid court debt appears doomed. Good riddance.

“There are lots of ways you can lose your license in Virginia,” said Sara Wilson, an attorney and Drive-To-Work’s president and CEO. Besides incarceration, the commonwealth can snatch away one’s mobility ability due to driving under the influence of alcohol, failing to make child support payments, not paying court costs stemming from vehicle accidents, not maintaining insurance and more.

“Money is a big hurdle” for people trying to get their license back, Wilson said. “They have to pay for the driver improvement clinic, they have to get an intervention interview, they have to get insurance, or they’ve been in jail and have to pay child support. … All of that requires money to complete.” 

This means economically disadvantaged Virginians are disproportionately affected by these standards; so too are Black would-be drivers, who Wilson says represent most of Drive-To-Work’s clientele. 

“Our typical client is a Black male who is 30 to 45,” Wilson said. One of those clients, Kenneth Judkins, Sr., spoke about his arduous experience regaining his license at Drive-To-Work’s annual Second Chance Community Luncheon in early October. 

“I first lost my driver’s license privileges in October 2003, because of driving while intoxicated in my car. I was immediately affected because I used to have a Class A [commercial driver’s license] and I used to drive tractor trailers,” Judkins said. 

Over the next six years, Judkins racked up several more DUIs and served stints in jail as a result. He moved to New Jersey in 2011, seeking an “environmental change” to aid in his recovery; while there he got a job as a building maintenance man but was still struggling with drinking. By the time he moved back to Virginia to renovate his grandmother’s mobile home in 2017, he’d had a change of heart and lifestyle.

“I finally realized I needed to make a wise decision: either I wanted to drive or I wanted to drink alcohol. I needed to stop drinking and driving before it killed me or someone else,” Judkins said at the luncheon. 

He stopped drinking but kept driving without a license, because he needed to get back and forth to work. In 2021, he contacted Wilson to start the process of regaining his driving privileges; it took two and a half years, but in June of this year, Judkins was granted a license and the ability to drive legally for the first time in nearly 20 years.

I finally realized I needed to make a wise decision: either I wanted to drive or I wanted to drink alcohol. I needed to stop drinking and driving before it killed me or someone else.

– Kenneth Judkins, Sr., a Drive-To-Work client who regained his drivers license after nearly 20 years without it.

“I now have my own handyman service. … Thank you for a second chance,” he told Wilson and her Drive-To-Work colleagues at the luncheon. 

Judkins’ situation shows how hard it can be for some Virginia residents to earn back their driving rights, the loss of which can seriously impact their ability to get and keep a job, support themselves and their families, complete basic self-care tasks and maintain social bonds with their friends and community members. While it’s true that many of these people lost their license due to their own poor decisions, after they’ve served their time, paid their debt to society and are attempting to become productive members of their communities, it’s critical that they have the support and resources they need, including and especially a valid driver’s license.

Drive-To-Work has advocated for major changes in Virginia’s laws regarding restoration of driving privileges since it was founded in 2007 by Randy Rollins, a former McGuireWoods lawyer and Virginia Secretary of Public Safety under Gov. Douglas Wilder. The General Assembly in 2019 passed legislation that stopped driver’s licenses from being suspended solely because of unpaid court fees, a change for which Drive-To-Work had lobbied for years. Before the law changed, the Legal Aid Justice Center said in a 2016 lawsuit against the state that more than 940,000 Virginians had their licenses suspended for unpaid court fees and fines.

How will 627,000 drivers with suspended licenses get their privileges back under new law? Automatically

The court fee law is just one piece of legislation that Drive-To-Work has challenged as inequitable; Wilson says the group has several legislative priorities in its sights for the 2024 General Assembly session. 

“We want to terminate restriction periods on drivers licenses for cases that are so old they’ve been purged by the court system,” Wilson said, noting if someone’s purged case dates back 10 years, they’ve already spent a decade without their license. “It’s inefficient and an unnecessary hurdle,” she said.

“We want to also see a restricted license developed for people who have had a conviction for a motor vehicle-related judgment, so that these folks can drive, get back to work and pay off the judgment. And we also want to see better communication between the DMV and the courts all over Virginia,” Wilson said, citing a client who, despite having a court approve his license reinstatement, had to repeatedly visit DMV to claim his card, all because of a simple paperwork problem that could have been cleared up had the courts and DMV collaborated more clearly on his case. 

Earning the right to drive again isn’t just a way for folks to cruise the streets; for many Virginians, it is a second lease on life and a much-needed opportunity to do better, get it right and move forward — goals that most of us strive towards daily. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Samantha Willis
Samantha Willis

Samantha Willis, a writer and journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans 12 years, is Commentary and Deputy Editor at the Virginia Mercury. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, Scalawag Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review, and within a wide range of Virginia-based media.