Steering Clear: A Driver's License Diversion Program 

Nashville skyline overlooking interstate highways. A time-lapse effect shows cars traveling on the roadways.

Our Challenge

In Metro Nashville, having a license is essential to surviving in society. Without one, traveling throughout the city, and from home to work, is a challenge.  
Yet for many city residents, the criminal prosecution of driver's licenses offenses, such as rolling through a stop sign, a broken taillight, or failure to wear a seatbelt, can result in an expensive, bureaucratically-challenging cycle of debt and arrest. 
With the Steering Clear Public Investment Plan (PIP), Metro Nashville aims to remove barriers — particularly financial ones — to drivers' retaining their licenses. Instead of arresting drivers or seeking payment of exorbitant fines, Metro Nashville will instead offer public service or driver education programs. 
Along with serving the city's drivers, the Steering Clear program is also a cost-saving measure for the court system, preventing long lines and heavy-duty administrative work at the courthouse. 
"One of the most systemic problems in our criminal justice system is the revolving door related to driver’s license issues. A person who doesn’t have a license compounds his or her fines and other penalties as time goes along. Having a driver’s license is essential to being a productive and successful member of our community. ‘Steering Clear’ is designed to help people navigate the system and work towards getting their license back so they can close that revolving door.”
—Daron Hall, Sheriff of Davidson County

How a Cycle of Debt Unfolds

Often, unlicensed drivers live in poverty. Suspending their license has a profound effect on their ability to find work — it can mean opting for a lower-paying, close-to-home jobs. Or, it may mean opting to drive illegally (potentially resulting in criminal charges and an arrest record, as well as hefty court costs). Criminal charges have ripple effects that can result in reduced housing options and family stress. 
Diagram showing the cycle of debt and arrest for a driver's license offense. Driver's license suspension leads to a need to drive. Need to drive leads to a criminal charge. Criminal charge leads to court costs. Court costs lead to unpaid costs. Unpaid costs lead to suspension. The cycle starts again.

In 2016, the court had an average of 85 driver's license offenses cases per court day.

The county's courts are backed up both figuratively and literally, with lines extending down the hallway of the courthouse. And, it's not just the courts that bear the burden of this high volume of cases. Some of the other governmental bodies involved include: Metro Police Department, Davidson Sheriff's Office, Office of the District Attorney of Nashville, Metropolitan Nashville's Public Defender's Office, and more. 
Currently, Metro Nashville devotes significant resources to prosecuting people for driver's license crimes. Yet, there is little to no evidence that this approach enhances public safety. Studies do show, however, that this approach has a negative impact on the people prosecuted, leading to an increase in poverty, limiting job opportunities, and destabilizing families. 
A law enforcement officer collecting the driver's license and writing a traffic ticket to a woman in the driver's seat of a car.

Why It Matters

Unclog Courts

In 2016, 33,496 defendants were booked on driver's license citations. For many of these defendants — 63%  — the only charge was a driver's license charge.
The Steering Clear program will divert these cases from the court system, reducing the burden on both the court and criminal justice agencies. 

Reduce Arrests & Fines

Thousands of Nashville residents drive without a license, or while their license is suspended or revoked, each day. Paying fines or navigating the court's bureaucracy is not feasible for many individuals. 
Instead of arresting these drivers, or levying further fines, this program helps drivers get their license back (if eligible) or allows them to attend a driver's education class or perform service work.  

How It Works

Steering Clear will work to identify individuals who are a good fit for the diversion program. To qualify, individuals must:  
  • Only have a driver's license charge — in 2016, that was roughly 21,000 people
  • Not be on probation for driving under intoxication (DUI) or any other driving offense 
  • Not be involved in a traffic accident 
  • Be eligible for a driver's license or restricted driver's license 
The program's initial aim is to accept 15 participants a day, or 75 participants a week. 

3 Diversion Options for Qualifying Individuals

Individuals who qualify for the program will have the option to complete one of three diversion options: 
  1. Obtain a driver's license: If necessary, Steering Clear staff will help drivers navigate the process to restore their driver's license, from referring them to classes to assigning a case manager.  
  2. Complete a driver education class
  3. Perform 8 hours of community service work: The preferred option will be litter pick up.   
Participants who successfully complete one of these three options within three to six months will have the criminal citation against them withdrawn.

The Goals of Steering Clear

  • Help people get their driver's license back and learn how to avoid losing it in the future
  • Foster economic opportunities for the affected drivers
  • Reduce unnecessary involvement in the criminal justice system.
  • Allow police officers to focus on behaviors that negatively impact public safety
  • Allow criminal justice agencies to redirect existing resources to more pressing problems
  • Reduce the number of people driving on a suspended or revoked license in Nashville and without auto insurance
Two lines of cars sitting in traffic in both lanes of a roadway.

Who's Involved

Organizations and agencies involved in this effort include: 
  • Davidson County Sheriff's Office – operates overall program as well as community service efforts
  • General Sessions Traffic School — provides driver education and driver's license reinstatement classes 
  • Public Defender – represents participants in related court proceedings, as needed
  • General Sessions Judges — approves continuance orders and citation withdrawals
  • Driver’s License Reinstatement Fund — this private partner provides no-interest loans to qualified participants
  • Justice Integration Services — develops database to automates processes, track participant compliance, and measure success

How Will We Measure Success? 

Our markers for success are: 
  1. The number of individuals eligible for the program who choose to participate
  2. The number of participants who successfully complete the diversion program and are thus able to avoid the criminal court process
  3. The number of participants who obtain a driver's license
  4. The number of community service work hours performed
  5. The number of  individuals who complete a driver education class
  6. The number of individuals who return to the program after completing it

See More PIP Projects

Public Investment Planning is an innovative approach to budgeting, launched in 2016, that challenges Metro departments and agencies to think creatively about how they can collaborate on pilot initiatives to better serve Nashville-Davidson County residents. Learn more at http://www.nashville.gov/Finance/Public-Investment-Plans.aspx.