The deaths of five people from two families in a multivehicle crash in West Virginia two weeks ago were uncommon, but not the fact, police said, that the crash was caused by an habitual drunk driver operating a vehicle despite having a suspended license.
Brian J. Stone, 32, has been charged with five counts of driving under the influence causing death in the accident on Interstate 68 near Morgantown, W.Va.
Mr. Stone, of Cheat Lake, W.Va., has piled up nine drunken driving arrests since 1998 and seven convictions. His most recent arrest, his fifth in Monongalia County, occurred nearly three years after his West Virginia driver's license had been suspended for 10 years. He also held a Pennsylvania license.
National Highway Safety Traffic Administration report on Vehicle and License Plate Sanctions, in .pdf format
People operating vehicles without valid licenses is a growing concern for federal and state officials. The problem is exacerbated because such violations are "invisible" -- unlike speeding or some other traffic offense, they are not readily observable by a patrol officer. Only when offenders break some other motor vehicle laws and are pulled over does it become known that they don't have valid licenses.
Because of that, it is anyone's guess how many of the millions of drivers with suspended or revoked licenses continue to drive. A joint study in 1997 by the National Sheriffs' Association and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said state motor vehicle officials estimated that as many as 80 percent of those who aren't licensed to drive legally do so anyway.
"It is not unusual for drivers with suspended licenses to receive additional traffic citations or to be involved in crashes when their licenses have been suspended," NHTSA noted in a February report.
Indeed, the report says, nearly 18 percent of all fatal crashes involve at least one improperly licensed driver.
About one-third of all drivers arrested or convicted each year of driving under the influence are repeat DUI offenders, NHTSA said. And many second- and third-time DUI offenders who had licenses suspended accumulated traffic offenses or were involved in crashes during the suspension periods.
In one study, 32 percent of suspended second-time DUI offenders and 61 percent of third-time offenders received violations or crash citations on their driving records during their suspensions.
"It really is a huge problem," said John Whetsel, chairman of the Traffic Safety Committee of the National Sheriffs' Association, headquartered in Alexandria, Va.
Some people simply refuse to stop driving if their licenses are suspended or revoked, said Mr. Whetsel, the sheriff of Oklahoma County, Okla., which includes Oklahoma City. He noted that a TV station there last week broadcast an investigative report showing drivers who had their licenses suspended by municipal judges only moments before walking out of the courtrooms, getting into cars and driving away.
"The other frustrating thing is these people can't get insurance, so in addition to the pain and suffering and grief they cause, they also can't pay for the injuries they cause," he said. "They are endangering the public. The fact is, driving is a privilege and not a right. It's something the state gives you based on your capacity to operate a vehicle safely."
More than 10 percent of Pennsylvania's 8.5 million licensed drivers -- 866,000 -- were under suspension in April, the last time the state Department of Transportation ran a computer program to determine the figure, which fluctuates daily because people are constantly being added and subtracted.
PennDOT said that over the past five years, annual license suspensions have ranged from a low of 769,449 in 2005 to a high of 958,229 in 2004, but those figures represent more than the actual number of drivers involved because some drivers received multiple suspensions.
State Police Cpl. Wayne Kline of the department's Bureau of Patrol in Harrisburg said it is not uncommon for troopers to pull over drivers with suspended or revoked licenses, primarily for speeding infractions. Some people, he said, just will not abide by the terms of suspensions or revocations.
"You run their driving history and they've already been cited five times and are not eligible for reinstatement for 10 or 15 years," he said. "They're not going to wait 10 or 15 years; they're going to drive. All we can do is keep citing them."
In Pennsylvania, driving while on a DUI-related license suspension is punishable by a jail term of not less than 90 days and a fine of $1,000. A second offense draws a six-month jail term and a fine of $2,500. For a third or subsequent violation, the jail term increases to two years and the fine to $5,000.
Operators caught driving on a non-DUI suspension are fined $200 with fines rising as high as $1,000 for subsequent violations.
"We enforce what the Legislature gives us to enforce" Cpl. Kline said. "A lot of times what does happen is we charge somebody with driving while under a DUI suspension and the magistrate lowers it to simple suspension to eliminate a jail term."
In rural areas, where public transportation is sparse or nonexistent, unlicensed drivers tell officers who pull them over that "they had to go to work, to the grocery story and had no other means of transportation," Cpl. Kline said. "That may be understandable, but this is such a serious enough offense that very little discretion is used."
Nationally, the problem is so bad that NHTSA said in its February report that states must take further action to keep habitual offenders off the road. To keep suspended-license drivers or those whose licenses have been revoked off the road, NHTSA is encouraging states to enact laws that affect owners' vehicles or license plates.
"Some states now allow vehicles owned by drivers convicted of certain impaired driving offenses to be impounded or immobilized [with a club or boot], forfeited and sold," according to NHTSA. "Other states allow the license plates to be removed and impounded, mandate the use of specially marked license plates or provide for the installation of alcohol ignition interlock devices."
Sheriff Whetsel agreed that states must take action to stop the burgeoning problem.
"I think we have to get tougher on them as far as vehicle seizure or putting them in jail," he said. "The easiest thing to do is to seize their vehicle."
An NHTSA and California Department of Motor Vehicles study found that an impoundment law there reduced the incidents of driving while suspended by 24 percent. An effort will be made soon to have such a law passed in Oklahoma, Sheriff Whetsel said.
One criticism of a law in which an habitual offender's vehicle is seized is that other family members who rely on the vehicle are punished. But don't try using that argument with Sheriff Whetsel. He said it's not the state taking the vehicle but the irresponsibility of the offender, usually a man and the head of the household, that is to blame.
Vehicle seizure is effective because "then they can't endanger other citizens. We're not talking the first offense but for those with multiple citations who continue to drive regardless of what the court tells them or the state motor vehicle agency tells them.
"They are endangering the public. Seizing their vehicle takes them off the street and takes away their ability to drive."
Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1968.