Technical Summary

Cover Page

Technical Report

Technical Summary


List of Tables


Study Sites

Observational Study

Focus Group Research





Preusser Research Group, Inc.






Observational Study of the Extent of Driving While Suspended for

Alcohol-Impaired Driving


September 2002


Anne T. McCartt, Lori L. Geary, William J. Nissen





Research spanning the last 20 years has consistently shown that removal of the driver's license is an effective specific and general deterrent for alcohol-impaired driving; the effects are both short-term and long-term.  Nevertheless, there is a substantial body of statistical and anecdotal evidence that offenders continue driving after their license has been withdrawn, although perhaps less frequently and more carefully.  Most evidence of continued driving has relied on drivers' self-report or on rates of re-arrest for drinking and driving, traffic violations, or crash involvement.  This study represents the first systematic effort to gather objective, independent, and unobtrusive observational data on the driving patterns of drivers who are suspended for alcohol-impaired driving.


Objectives and General Approach

The study addressed the following objectives:

·         determine the extent and circumstances of driving while suspended, relative to the extent and circumstances of driving when not suspended

·         determine the transportation patterns and motivations for driving among offenders before, during, and after suspension

            The study encompassed observations of offenders' driving patterns and focus group research at two sites, the City of Milwaukee (WI) and Bergen County (NJ).  Subjects were persons who had recently lost their driver's license as a result of their first alcohol-impaired driving conviction. 


Study Sites

            In selecting sites, preference was given to states with sanctions that ensured that most first-time offenders experienced a “hard” license suspension (no occupational, conditional, or hardship license available) of sufficient length so that observations could be conducted.  Other criteria included the availability of timely case-level data on alcohol-impaired driving offenses and reliance by most residents on their vehicle as the primary mode of transportation.


The selected sites, Milwaukee and Bergen County, operate under different alcohol-impaired driving laws.  Wisconsin imposes both an administrative and a court suspension for the first Operating While Impaired (OWI) offense.  Mandatory minimum penalties include a suspension of six months for failure of the alcohol test [that is, a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at or above the illegal level] and a one-year revocation for a test refusal.  For first-time offenders who have had no other license suspensions within the prior year, an occupational license can be obtained immediately by persons who fail the alcohol test and after a one-month suspension for persons who refuse the test.  There are no special sanctions for driving while suspended/revoked based on an OWI, and there are no mandatory minimum penalties for driving while suspended/revoked.


In New Jersey, there is no administrative license sanction for persons who refuse or fail the alcohol test.  Persons convicted of a first-time Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) offense receive a court-ordered mandatory minimum “hard” license suspension of six months, effective at the time of conviction.  No occupational or conditional license is available.  An alcohol test refusal is charged as a separate violation; for a first-time refusal, the court imposes a mandatory six-month license revocation.  If a person is convicted of the separate violations of refusing the test and DWI, the license sanctions are served consecutively rather than concurrently.  New Jersey imposes stiff fines for a first offense, including an annual $1,000 insurance surcharge for three years.  Mandatory penalties for driving while suspended for DWI include a one to two-year license suspension, a fine of $400 or more, a jail term of 10 to 90 days, and an insurance surcharge of $250 /year for three years.  In addition, the vehicle registration is revoked for the same time period as the license suspension, although temporary registration and tags may be issued. 


Observational Study

            Bonded surveillance professionals from Pinkerton Investigative Services, Inc., observed subjects during their license suspension period and if they had their license reinstated, again after reinstatement, if they reinstated their license.  The comparison of travel during and after the suspension period permitted inferences to be drawn concerning whether an offender's travel patterns changed as a result of the suspension.


            Originally, Milwaukee offenders with occupational licenses were to be observed at times when driving was prohibited.  Of the initial original subject pool, 62% of offenders were eligible to obtain an occupational license, and 25% did so.  A review of driver abstracts for these offenders revealed that the occupational licenses generally allowed driving during most daytime and evening hours.  Thus, persons in Milwaukee with an occupational license were excluded because there were only a few hours of the day when driving was not allowed at all.


            The remaining subjects were observed as follows:

Drivers Whose License Was Later Reinstated: Observed one randomly selected weekday morning for four hours (Monday – Thursday 6 – 10 a.m.) and one randomly selected weekend evening for four hours (Friday or Saturday 6 – 10 p.m.) during the last month of the suspension period; later, from one to two months after reinstatement, observed the same weekday morning and weekend evening.

Drivers Not Reinstated: Observed only during the suspension period, that is, observed one weekday morning and one weekend evening during the last month of the suspension.


Case records were obtained from the Milwaukee Municipal Court and from five municipal courts in Bergen County.  Subjects were persons who had recently been convicted of a “standard” first-time alcohol-impaired driving offense, were 21 years of age or older, and resided in-state within a 50-mile radius of Milwaukee or Bergen County.  It was necessary to exclude a few subjects who could not be located, were incarcerated, etc. 

The final subject pool included 57 offenders in Milwaukee and 36 offenders in Bergen County.  There were substantial differences between the subjects at the two sites.  A larger proportion of subjects in Bergen County than in Milwaukee were 25 years old or younger (31% vs. 18%) and female (25% vs. 11%).  A much larger percentage of the Milwaukee subjects had problematic driving histories.  The Milwaukee subjects were much more likely to have had at least one suspension (for a violation other than DWI/OWI) during the five years preceding the DWI/OWI arrest (67% vs. 17%) and to be serving at least one suspension at the time of the DWI/OWI arrest (47% vs. 6%). 

Subjects in the two sites also differed in the circumstances of their current current DWI/OWI arrest.  For example, half the arrests in Milwaukee were associated with a reportable crash, compared with none of the arrests in Bergen County.  A larger proportion of the Milwaukee subjects were convicted of at least one other traffic offense committed at the time of the DWI/OWI arrest (39% vs. 17%). 

Twenty-three (40%) of the 57 Milwaukee subjects were eligible for license reinstatement at the end of the OWI suspension, and 3 subjects (5%) were reinstated.  All 36 Bergen County subjects were eligible for reinstatement, and 28 subjects (78%) were reinstated.  All but 9 Milwaukee subjects (84%) received at least one additional license suspension after the OWI arrest, and 24 subjects (42%) received two or more suspensions.  In Bergen County, 7 of the 36 subjects (19%) received at least one subsequent suspension.


Of the 57 Milwaukee subjects, 30 (53%) drove while suspended during at least one of the two observation periods, 4 (7%) did not drive but used alternative transportation on at least one occasion, and 23 (40%) did not travel during either observation.  Of the 36 Bergen County subjects, 8 (22%) drove while suspended at least once during the two observation periods, 14 (39%) did not drive but used alternative transportation, and 14 (39%) did not travel during either observation.  The differences between the two sites were statistically significant (p < .001).  It should be reiterated that Milwaukee offenders who obtained an occupational license (25% of the potential subject pool) were excluded from the observational study.

An alternative measure of the prevalence of driving while suspended is the proportion of subjects who drove, based only on the subjects who were observed traveling during either of the two four-hour observation periods during suspension.  The results based on this measure, summarized in the table below, are even more striking.  The between-site differences were statistically significant      (p < .001).

Method of Travel for Subjects Observed Traveling During Suspension



Bergen County

Drove at Least Once





Didn't Drive and Used Alternative Travel











Χ = 16.5, p < .001, df= 1

Comparison of the during-suspension/after-suspension travel patterns of Milwaukee subjects yielded little useful information, as the license was reinstated for only 3 of the 57 subjects.  For the 28 Bergen County subjects who were reinstated, the driving patterns during-suspension were significantly different than the driving patterns after reinstatement.  This indicates that the suspension had an impact on the subjects' driving patterns.  As shown in the table below, one-quarter of these subjects drove and 43% used alternative transportation during their suspension, versus 54% and 7%, respectively, after reinstatement.  The change was significantly different (p < .001).

Observed Travel During Suspension and After License Reinstatement

Bergen County




Drove at Least Once





Didn't Drive and Used Alternative Travel





Travel Not Observed











Χ = 10.3, p < .001, df = 2


Focus Groups

Focus groups were used to gather qualitative information on the knowledge, behaviors, and attitudes of persons who had recently experienced a license suspension as a result of their first alcohol-impaired driving offense. 

In both Wisconsin and New Jersey, first-time offenders must undergo an assessment for alcohol dependency and complete an alcohol/drug education program.  Focus group participants were recruited by means of a flyer that was distributed by instructors in these programs.  During the summer of 2001, 16 people participated in three focus groups held in Milwaukee, and 21 people participated in three focus groups held in Bergen County.  Most participants in both sites were currently under suspension, and the others had had their license reinstated.  Of the 13 Milwaukee participants who were under suspension, 11 had an occupational license. 

In both sites, the majority of participants said the worst sanction was the emotional and psychological consequences of the experience.  A number of participants in both sites also mentioned the financial costs.  Four of the 16 Milwaukee participants, and 7 of the 21 New Jersey participants, said that the license suspension was the worst part of their sentences. 


Although there were notable differences in reported attitudes, experiences, and behaviors among participants in each site, the more striking differences were those between sites.  Differences in the severity of the states' laws appeared to be an important factor.  The penalties imposed on New Jersey participants were more severe, on average, than those imposed on Milwaukee participants.  In particular, the financial penalties were considerably higher for New Jersey participants, primarily as a result of the state-imposed insurance surcharge.  The license sanction was also more severe, on average, as the severity of Wisconsin's license suspension was substantially weakened by the availability of the occupational license for many offenders. 


            In general, the suspension appeared to represent a far greater hardship for New Jersey participants.  Many reported that they had made major changes in their work and personal lives to comply with the suspension.  Due largely to the availability of the occupational license, few Milwaukee participants made significant changes in their lives to deal with the suspension.  The perception of risk for detection and punishment for driving while suspended was much higher among New Jersey participants.  New Jersey participants also demonstrated a greater knowledge and a greater fear of the sanctions for driving while suspended.  A discussion of the merits of each state's licensing sanction indicated that the sanction in New Jersey, relative to the sanction in Milwaukee, had considerable deterrent power, but also was viewed by many as onerous and unfair.


A sizeable proportion of the participants in both sites indicated that they drove on at least some occasions while their license was suspended.  Many of the Milwaukee participants with an occupational license indicated that they drove on at least some occasions outside the restrictions of the license. 




TThe results of the observational study were clear and compelling.  Based on observations of eligible first-time offenders in two sites, with observations conducted on a typical weekday morning and on a Friday or Saturday evening, 30 out of 34 offenders (88%) in one site drove at least once when traveling during their suspension period.  As subjects were observed only for two four-hour periods during their suspension period, it is likely that the extent of driving throughout the suspension period was very high.  At the other site, about one-third drove at least once when traveling.  Two-thirds of subjects at this site used alternative transportation rather than driving while suspended.  Many of these persons resumed driving once their license was reinstated. 

These results establish that the prevalence of driving while suspended among first-time offenders is high; that the prevalence can vary substantially between jurisdictions; and that the license suspension can have an impact on the driving patterns of offenders during suspension, relative to the driving patterns resumed after license reinstatement.  The results of the focus group research suggest that the dramatically different results at the two sites may be partly attributable to differences in the severity of sanctions for driving while suspended and differences in the perceived risk of apprehension and punishment for driving while suspended.  Thus, although the findings may add to growing concerns that the widespread disregard for license sanctions among drunk drivers may erode the effectiveness of this countermeasure, they also suggest that strong sanctions for driving while suspended, coupled with strong enforcement, may increase compliance with licensing sanctions. 



HS Form 321 July 1974