A 44-year-old Berlin woman was driving in January with a suspended license — one of 52 penalties in her troubled driving history— when she allegedly fled after striking two pedestrians on a Voorhees road.
Earlier this month, a Mount Ephraim man who allegedly drove off after fatally striking a 67-year-old woman on the Black Horse Pike in Haddon Township hadn’t had a valid license in more than two decades. Timothy Polijczuk’s license had been suspended 58 times since 1980, and he never attempted to restore it after 1989, according to the state Motor Vehicle Commission.
Polijczuk and Michele Toussaint are among the 5 percent of motorists in New Jersey who at any given time have their driving privileges suspended. But like the majority of the 300,000 suspended drivers, the reason for those suspensions have to do with actions off the road as much as on.
“The overwhelming majority of people who lose their license lose their license for non-driving-related offenses,” said Cornell William Brooks, executive director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
But because the majority of infractions that lead to suspensions aren’t criminal, even drivers with a suspension history rarely face detention, making suspensions largely self-enforced.
“It really does come down to the individual adhering to what the court or the Motor Vehicle Commission has ordered,” said MVC spokesman Mike Horan.
Studies show that all too often those with a suspended license ignore the constraint — with deadly consequences. Studies by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimate 20 percent of fatal accidents involve a driver either without a license or one that has been revoked or suspended.
Drivers involved in a crash are eight times more likely to flee if their license is suspended or revoked than properly licensed drivers, the report also found.
“It is a big deal,” Horan said, citing one case where a driver had 143 suspensions.
Chris Nave, assistant professor of psychology for Rutgers-Camden, believes a percentage of drivers who willingly drive with a suspended license could be characterized as having a shared lack of conscientiousness.
“It’s going to have people really not care about the outcomes or ramifications,” he added.
Nave said such personality types are more likely to let fines slide or care less about maintaining proper insurance. But some violators simply choose to drive with a suspended license for work or other obligations.
Polijczuk had his license suspended four times for DUIs, but also was cited for failing to pay surcharges and for driving with a suspended license.
A MVC spokeswoman said Toussaint’s suspensions came almost exclusively from administrative infractions, such as failing to pay surcharges and missing court appearances. Neither Polijczuk nor Toussaint could be reached for comment.
On average, less than 6 percent of the suspensions handed out each year in New Jersey are for purely driving-related reasons, according to findings in a 2007 Rutgers University study. The study found nearly 10 times as many drivers have their licenses suspended for failing to pay insurance surcharges than for accumulating too many moving violations.
About 25,000 license suspensions— or 3 percent of the yearly total — come from driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Horan said a single infraction can at times result in one suspension after another.
“It could all stem from an unpaid parking ticket,” he explained of an infraction that, left unaddressed, can lead to suspension.
“It all spirals out of control from there.”
A motorist who receives a parking ticket and subsequently misses a court date can have a license suspended. Caught driving with a suspended license, the driver faces a surcharge that, if it isn’t paid, results in another license suspension.
Similarly, surcharges for a DUI total $1,000 a year for three years. If payments are stopped on the surcharge, the license is suspended.
“It can be very easy to keep racking up suspensions,” Horan said. “It becomes a vicious cycle whether you intend to or not.”
Brooks, of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said it’s a cycle that most heavily affects the poor. The prospect of paying motor vehicle fines to restore a license while being unable to drive to work can be devastating.
“What is otherwise a middle-class inconvenience, for poor people can become the means by which you lose your ability to sustain yourself,” Brooks said of a suspended license. “They’re not less law-abiding; they just don’t have the means.”
The Rutgers study found 16.5 percent of New Jersey drivers live in low-income zip codes, where 43 percent of suspended drivers live.
“This population may be less able to pay fines, fees and surcharges given their more limited financial resources,” the study noted.
And as low income residents are more highly concentrated in urban areas, they also face higher odds of receiving parking tickets or traffic violations. The latter are more frequent in densely populated areas.
Brooks said the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice has worked with the court system in Essex County to create license restoration programs. The institute has also trained hundreds of advocates across the state who assist motorists in regaining their license.
Written by George Mast