A Call to Action: Cities and Driver’s License Restoration & Reform

What your city can do to end the negative impact of license suspensions on residents through restoration and reform

What Works Cities
5 min readNov 4, 2019


The Issue

In the United States today, nearly every state suspends, revokes, or prevents renewal of driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets, tolls, and other fines and fees, translating to over 11 million license suspensions nationwide for reasons unrelated to safe driving.

The cost of this practice is enormous. Eighty-six percent of Americans drive to work, and many jobs require driver’s licenses even if no driving is involved. In fact, a recent study found that in Phoenix, over half of the people who lost their licenses also lost their jobs, making it more difficult for them to support their families and contribute to the local economy. When people have their licenses suspended, they lose what is often their only mode of transportation to go to work, make doctors’ appointments or court dates, take children to school, and go to the grocery store.

Changing this situation requires dedicated effort. In the states that use driver’s license restrictions as a method to coerce debt repayment, state level legislative reform is required in order to bring systemic relief and opportunity. However, as these state level reforms are pursued, cities can take actions today that provide more immediate impact for their residents who are affected.

A Solution from Durham

Image courtesy of DEAR Durham’s website

Consider the City of Durham, North Carolina. An initial analysis of their data discovered that one in five residents had a suspended or revoked driver’s license and that 80 percent of these residents were African American or Hispanic.

Recognizing the negative cascading effects that this can have for its residents, the city, with the local District Attorney’s office, courts, and other partners, launched an effort called the Durham Expungement and Restoration (DEAR) program that worked to identify potentially dismissible traffic charges and fees that caused license suspension and proactively engage and work with residents who would be eligible for license restoration. This ultimately resulted in the dismissal of over 50,000 traffic charges for 35,000 people; none of the dismissed charges were high-risk infractions such as reckless driving or driving under the influence.

Sprint Overview

As part of its City Solutions work, What Works Cities is partnering with the City of Durham Innovation Team and national advocacy organization Fines and Fees Justice Center to provide an opportunity for cities to learn how to take immediate steps toward ending the negative impact of driver’s license suspensions for residents in their city.

Participating cities will join a 10-week sprint — an online workshop with an immersive, expedited format — with a cohort of peers to understand how this issue directly affects their own residents, learn about the local license restoration and reform effort carried out in Durham, and develop a similar program for their own communities. They will also explore how they might support statewide advocacy efforts to end unnecessary license suspensions. Leaders from the Durham Innovation Team and the Fines and Fees Justice Center will facilitate each learning session.

To learn more about the issue and what to expect from the sprint, watch our introductory webinar.

At the conclusion of the 10 weeks, participating cities will have:

  • Gained an understanding of how license suspensions affect residents in their city, including how to identify data and analyze data that allow for an understanding of the scope of the problem in their city;
  • Gained an understanding of local approaches for license restoration and reform—in particular, the Durham model for license restoration and the key relationships and processes required to make it successful;
  • Obtained a clear picture of the particular policy and political contexts for their license restoration work, including an understanding of applicable state and city laws and ordinances, as well as key stakeholders;
  • Built a team, consisting of the necessary members to successfully execute a license restoration project;
  • Aligned efforts in support of statewide advocacy strategies to change license suspension laws that are the major drivers of the problem; and
  • Developed an immediately actionable plan to achieve a set of city-specific restoration goals, including the reduction of harm as a result of license suspensions.

Sprint Details

  • When: Thursday afternoons, every week for 10 weeks, starting January 9, ending March 12. Time TBD.
  • Where: Weekly 1 to 1.5 hour webinars and/or cohort discussions delivered via an online learning platform.

Who should participate

While individuals are able to participate in the sprint, cities are encouraged to bring together a team of key stakeholders to take part together in order to maximize the opportunity and establish a foundation for long-term success.

Participating members of the team could include, but are not limited to, leaders and staff from: Data or Innovation Offices, District or City Attorney’s Offices, local advocacy or other community organizations, local law schools, and/or local court systems, including public defenders, judges, and clerks.

Eligibility requirements

Cities that have identified addressing equity issues and/or economic mobility as a top priority are especially encouraged to apply.

Participating cities are expected to participate fully in all 10 sessions, complete all assignments and readings, and engage sincerely in advancing on the goals of the sprint.

If you are interested in participating, please fill out this registration form by December 17, 2019.

Sprint Facilitators

Weekly sessions will be led by the Durham Innovation Team and the Fines and Fees Justice Center. The instructors will include:

Key partners from DEAR, along with other experts and practitioners with deep experience in this issue, will also be invited to present and support our lead instructors.

Important dates

  • Information session webinar: November 14, 2019 (you can watch the recording here)
  • Registration for the sprint closes: December 17, 2019
  • WWC Assessment must be completed by December 31, 2019
  • Sprint begins: January 9, 2020


Email CitySolutions@results4america.org or watch this informational webinar.

What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative launched in 2015, helps local governments across the country drive progress in their cities through the effective use of data and evidence to tackle pressing challenges that affect their communities.

Through its City Solutions work, What Works Cities partners with cities, community organizations, and other local and national organizations to accelerate the adoption of programs, policies, and practices that have previously demonstrated success in helping cities solve their most difficult challenges.



What Works Cities

Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.