Although there is a body of statistical and anecdotal evidence that alcohol-impaired driving offenders continue to drive after their license has been withdrawn, heretofore this evidence has relied on drivers' self-report or on rates of re-arrest for drinking and driving, traffic violations, or crash involvement. This study represents the first systematic effort to gather objective, independent, and unobtrusive observational data on the travel patterns of persons who are suspended for their first alcohol-impaired driving conviction.
In collecting these data, procedures were established for the identification of eligible subjects, the verification of subjects' residences and identities, and the conduct of observations that ensured that the data would be collected in a consistent, rigorous, and unbiased manner. Unobtrusive observations were conducted by surveillance professionals in accordance with a protocol that included times when drivers would be likely to travel to or from work and for social, personal, or recreational reasons. For observations conducted after the reinstatement of the driver's license, the observation periods were matched by time of day and day of week with the during-suspension observation periods. The comparison of travel during and after the suspension period permitted inferences to be drawn concerning whether an offender's travel patterns changed as a result of the suspension.
The results of the observational study were clear and compelling. Based on observations of eligible first-time offenders in two sites, with observations conducted on a randomly selected, typical weekday morning and a randomly selected, typical Friday or Saturday evening, three key overall findings emerged. First, the prevalence of driving while suspended among first-time offenders was high. Second, the prevalence of driving while suspended varied substantially between the two sites; the level of compliance with the license suspension was dramatically higher among Bergen County subjects than among Milwaukee subjects. Third, based on Bergen County drivers who reinstated their license, the suspension appeared to have had an impact on driving patterns during the suspension, relative to the driving patterns resumed after reinstatement.
Of the 34 Milwaukee subjects who were observed traveling during at
least one of the two four-hour observation periods during their suspension,
30 persons (88 percent) were observed driving at least once. As subjects
were observed only for two four-hour periods during their suspension
period, it is likely that the extent of driving throughout the entire
suspension period was high. Milwaukee subjects who violated their suspension
drove for personal reasons, or to get to or from work, and they were
about equally likely to drive on a weekday morning or a Friday or Saturday
evening. In contrast, of the 22 Bergen County subjects who were observed
Furthermore, the Bergen County subjects who reinstated their license were far more likely to drive after reinstatement (during the same days of week and times of day) than during the suspension period. Thus, in the site where driving before and after suspension could be compared for most offenders, the license suspension appeared to have had an impact on offenders' driving patterns.
There are likely several explanations for the differences between sites. One factor may have been the different socio-economic profiles of the two sites; Bergen County subjects were much more likely to live in affluent areas. Although the effects of income on the incidence of driving while suspended could not be determined due to the small number of cases and the lack of case-level income data, it is plausible that more affluent persons may be better able to maintain their current work and social lives without driving illegally. Another factor may have been that Milwaukee is a large city and Bergen County, although densely populated, includes many small municipalities and boroughs. Participants in the focus groups believed that local police officers knew them and knew that they had been convicted of DWI. Clearly, there is much more anonymity in a large city such as Milwaukee. In addition, enforcement priorities may also differ between a smaller, more residential community and a large industrial city.
Another factor may have been the different driving histories of the subjects at the two sites. Milwaukee subjects were far more likely to have complex and problematic driving histories, including multiple prior license suspensions, often based on the failure to pay fines and fees. Although a statistical relationship could not be verified, driving while suspended in Milwaukee was more likely among subjects who had had a prior suspension or who were currently suspended when arrested for OWI. Based on a review of the driver abstracts for the Milwaukee subjects, a typical cycle emerged: receiving moving or non-moving violations, followed by failure to pay the fine or fee, followed by the suspension of the license, followed by additional violations, failure to pay the fine, additional licenses suspensions, conviction for driving while suspended, further suspensions, and so forth. The fact that almost half the Milwaukee subjects were already suspended when they were arrested for OWI is ample evidence that the suspension of the license was not a fully effective deterrent for these offenders.
Milwaukee offenders with an occupational license (25 percent of the
Milwaukee potential subject pool) were necessarily excluded from the
observational study. Thus, the observational study sample did not represent
all offenders. Yet, one-third of the persons with occupational licenses
had had at least one prior license suspension. Furthermore, the Milwaukee
focus group participants with occupational licenses indicated that they
sometimes drove outside the terms of the occupational license.
The focus group discussions suggest other important reasons for the different results for Milwaukee and Bergen County. It should be noted that the composition of the focus groups differed from the composition of the observational study samples, especially in Milwaukee. In Milwaukee, persons with an occupational license were excluded from the observational study but participated in the focus groups. In addition, the fact that participants were volunteers may have introduced a selection bias. Because the participants were recruited from alcohol/drug education classes, persons who failed to attend the classes would have been excluded. This may have been particularly relevant in Milwaukee, where the driver abstracts for some subjects in the observational study indicated that they had failed to attend the required assessment interview. Finally, the focus groups in Milwaukee were limited to offenders determined to be "irresponsible drinkers" as a result of an alcohol assessment; other offenders determined to have a more serious alcohol problem were excluded.
Nevertheless, the focus groups suggest that differences in the laws in New Jersey and Wisconsin were an important factor in offenders' perceptions and behaviors. As would be anticipated, the lack of an occupational license in New Jersey meant that the license suspension had a greater impact on New Jersey offenders' work and personal lives, and, thus, may have been a stronger deterrent to future drinking and driving. Although Milwaukee participants with an occupational license acknowledged that they drove outside the terms of the license, they also indicated that most of their driving could be accomplished within the terms of the occupational license. The fact that New Jersey's penalties for driving while suspended are mandatory and far more severe also seemed to affect the perceptions and behaviors of the focus group participants at that site, who expressed a high perceived risk of apprehension and punishment for driving while suspended. This contrasts with the perceptions of most Milwaukee participants that there is a very low likelihood of apprehension and punishment for driving while suspended.
Thus, although the study confirms that the prevalence of driving while
suspended is high, it also suggests that strong state laws, coupled
with a high level of perceived enforcement, may increase compliance
with licensing sanctions among first-time alcohol-impaired driving offenders.