COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Ohio officials hope to get hundreds of thousands of suspended drivers back on the road - and in some cases back to work - more quickly through a new program allowing them to pay reinstatement fees in monthly installments and legally resume driving in the meantime.
Nearly half of the roughly 1 million suspended drivers will be eligible for the plan that starts Monday, according to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The option will apply to drivers whose only remaining license reinstatement requirement is $150 or more in outstanding fees, but it excludes those who have court-ordered pending suspensions or payment plans.
"It gives people that want to help themselves a way out," state registrar Mike Rankin said. He noted that Ohioans lose licenses for 45 reasons, 20 of which aren't directly driving-related, such as not paying child support or failing to pay for a fuel purchase at a gas station. The most common reason is getting caught driving without required insurance.
Ohio drivers with suspended licenses will be able to get back on the road while paying their fines in installments.
"Most people out there are - at least in the last eight years - are not willfully not paying," Rankin said. "They've lost jobs. They're piecing together jobs to just, you know, support themselves."
Rankin said the installment plan offers more options than the previous process that required a trip to one of seven reinstatement centers and could be more time and cost prohibitive, spurring some drivers to hit the road illegally despite their suspensions.
Under the new program, drivers must apply, prove they have insurance and make a $50 payment toward the fees they owe. Participants then must make $50 monthly payments by mail, phone, online or in person at a reinstatement center or deputy registrar's office to avoid returning to suspension.
Drivers' fees range from less than $200 in some cases to thousands of dollars as costly penalties increase for repeat offenders, making it harder for them to pay their totals and become a legal driver, BMV administrator Tim Fisher said.
"A lot of the people that we're talking about here have absolutely just given up," Fisher said.
Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Job and Family Services in southeast Ohio, said even the smaller fees add up to big obstacles for people struggling to get by.
"That gets to be a huge barrier for them then in trying to get and keep a job, especially in the rural areas like this where you absolutely have to have access to a vehicle and a driver's license to work," he said. His agency is offering to cover the initial $50 payments for residents who qualify for the plan and receive welfare assistance through the state.
In southwest Ohio, Dayton Municipal Court has been notifying potentially eligible defendants to spread the word about the plan, said presiding Judge John Pickrel, who hopes the installment program will reduce the number of drivers making repeat court visits related to their suspensions.
The BMV expects to see more payments come in through the payment plan, which grew out of legislation passed last year, but it will take time to determine how much that might benefit the bureau, Rankin said.
Ohio's plan is getting attention beyond state lines, too, said Brian Ursino, director of law enforcement for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. The association, which has published a guide to best practices for reducing suspended drivers, points to it as an example of how states can help people whose suspensions don't stem from dangerous driving, Ursino said.