By Ryan Aroney, President & CEO of United Way of Greater Lorain County

In February of this year, I had the opportunity to travel to Columbus on behalf of United Way of Lorain County to meet with our state elected officials to advocate for crucial initiatives aimed at improving transportation accessibility and addressing issues surrounding driver’s license suspensions.

In a county where a lack of reliable transportation can often be a barrier to accessing essential services, employment opportunities, and healthcare, United Way staff discussed the need to find solutions that ensure transportation equity for all residents. One solution currently being debated by the Ohio General Assembly is Senate Bill 37.

This legislation seeks to eliminate driver’s license suspensions related to non-payment of fines and fees. These suspensions disproportionately affect low-income individuals, creating a cycle of financial hardship and hindering their ability to secure employment and meet their basic needs.

The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland’s 2022 report, “Road to Nowhere: Debt-Related Driver’s License Suspensions in Ohio,” found that approximately 60% of all Ohio driver’s license suspensions are based on a person’s failure to pay money owed to a court, to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV), or to a private third-party. In 2020, there were 95,970 driver’s license suspensions and registration blocks in Senate District 13 alone, which includes Lorain County. An incredible 67% of those suspensions were debt related, including 40,000 in Lorain County. Research also shows that the average person in Lorain County has a 25-minute commute to work, rendering it virtually impossible to get to work without driving a car.

In Ohio, suspending a driver’s license as a tool to collect debt – rather than limiting this sanction to unsafe driving practices – hurts both job seekers and Ohio’s employers. Without a driver’s license, people cannot access decent jobs, schools, medical care, grocery stores, places of worship, or adequately care for their family members. National studies repeatedly show that people without driver’s licenses choose to drive illegally to work over not working. While this decision may be understandable when the rent is due or food needs to be put on the table, it leads to more suspensions and fines that snowball into bigger and more expensive problems.

Research has shown that 61 percent of people with these suspensions experienced at least one essential hardship as a result, including housing, food, and employment.

United Way of Greater Lorain County commits over $450,000 per year to Lorain County residents through the United Community Assistance Network (UCAN). UWGLC and nine local partners provide working households with emergency financial assistance for rent, utilities, and other emergency basic needs – including driver’s license fines and fees – when they fall into a short-term financial crisis. The goal of the collaborative is to proactively provide support to low-income workers when needed so they can return to stability and ultimately work their way out of poverty. Many of the people we serve through UCAN would have no realistic means of reinstating their driver’s license without the changes proposed in Senate Bill 37.

Senate Bill 37 would limit driver’s license suspensions to those convictions related to dangerous driving, eliminating the government’s authority to revoke, suspend, or refuse to renew a person’s license for failure to pay court fines and fees when the offense does not carry a possible jail sentence. Eliminating driver’s license suspensions for anything not directly related to dangerous driving would restore the right to work for thousands of Lorain County residents, allowing them to positively contribute to the economy while paying down their underlying debt.

The legislation has received overwhelming support in the Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by our county’s State Representative Nathan Manning. We met with Senator Manning’s staff while in Columbus and urged his support for moving the bill.

We will continue to fight to ensure that a person’s ability to pay a fine or a fee should not determine whether they are free to drive. We support Senate Bill 37, and we urge Senator Manning to move this bill through committee, and for the Ohio General Assembly to pass this legislation as soon as possible.