Featured photo by Mike Bird

Out of the 1.3 million people who have suspended driver’s licenses in North Carolina, 21 percent are drivers whose licenses were taken away for failing to pay traffic fines or court fees. Sixty-six percent are for failure to appear in court. According to research from Duke University, 56,861 people in Forsyth County had suspended licenses in 2020. That’s nearly 15 percent of Forsyth County’s 382,590 residents, per the 2020 census

But between May and December of last year, around 600 drivers in Forsyth County got back on track thanks to a driver’s license restoration program funded by the city of Winston-Salem.

To date, nearly $600,000 in city funding has fueled DRIVE, a fitting acronym standing for Driver’s Restoration Initiative and Vocational Expansion program.

An earlier version of the license-restoration program called Community Outreach was started in 2015 by Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, but offered infrequently.

The city of Winston-Salem recognized the need for the program in the community, as well as the program’s need for some extra cash.

An initial $275,000 from the city drove the first couple years of the expanded program, which launched in August 2020. Then, in November 2022, city councilmembers pitched an extra $300,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding toward it. 

Previously, the program was set to expire at the end of this month. However, staff vacancies contributed to less program dollars being spent. City leaders plan on extending the program to Dec. 31, 2025 in order to spend the remaining funding. 

Today, the district attorney’s office receives more than 300 monthly calls and applications for assistance through the program, and this year they’re expecting to help nearly 1,000 people. 

When a simple traffic ticket gets stacked on top of life’s mountain of bills, sometimes that ticket tumbles down to the bottom of the pile. Other needs like rent and food become more important. In Winston-Salem, more than 18 percent of residents are living in poverty. 

“When you choose what you’re going to pay, it’s a traffic ticket you’re not gonna pay,” the county’s chief assistant district attorney Jennifer Martin noted in December 2023.

DRIVE staff members help people understand the process and assist them in putting together their evidence — rent stubs, child support orders, paychecks.

“Anything and all that will help us understand your financial situation,” Martin said.

Martin said that it’s “shocking” to see the people who have been assisted by the program “weep” in the courtroom after the judge reduces or waives their fees.

But it’s because the program has made a world of difference to people.

The DRIVE program’s extension has been recommended by councilmembers on the city’s finance committee and will be voted on by the full council at their June 3 meeting.

Need help getting your driver’s license restored? Apply to the DRIVE program here. To contact DRIVE, call 336-779-6310 or email [email protected]

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