By Gary Biller, NMA President
This is a controversial topic, even outside of these extraordinary times when most of the nation is confined to restricted movement as officials grapple with getting the coronavirus pandemic under control. With shelter-in-place edicts still in effect in most places, there is no doubt a lot of pent-up frustration. So we’re going to tackle the right-to-travel issue and provide an avenue of release for that energy.
First, let’s focus the discussion on the real question: The right to drive. Current times notwithstanding, and short of incarceration, people not only have the right to travel but are able to exercise that right quite freely. Long treatises have been written on the subject, and I won’t relitigate them here. The freedom to drive, where and when we want—that is the basic issue.
Some NMA members would like to see the driver’s license abolished, and as part of that process, to eliminate all state departments of motor vehicles. I have said before, and I’ll repeat here: Give the NMA $10 million and an army of lobbyists to take on this two-pronged battle, and we’d not make a dent. It’s not a realistic or practical goal.
The NMA’s mission involves reversing what the driver’s license has morphed into: Instead of a certification of an individual’s competency to drive a motor vehicle and understanding of traffic laws, the license has become a national ID card, and a means to gather information about and assess penalties to those individuals.
That is the real threat to driving freedoms. Well, that and the ongoing, concerted attacks by anti-driving and anti-driver movements. But let’s put aside the issues involving Vision Zero and Complete Streets programs for the time being and, for the purposes of this discussion, concentrate on the licensing issue.
To kick things off, I’ll share some past correspondence that I, NMA Founder Jim Baxter, and the late Jim Walker have had with others on this topic. As passionately as we all feel about the right to drive, there is no doubt readers will have some strong responses. I would expect nothing less. Email us at NMA@motorists.org with your thoughts. We’ll share the most interesting points of view.
From Jim Baxter, Aug 2010, responding to an email inquiry
“I appreciate your frustration with the abuse of governmental authority as it affects the ‘right to travel.’ Given your interest and concern in this issue, I assume that you know the ‘right to travel’ is not explicitly mentioned or defined in the Bill of Rights. It is certainly implied, but it is not articulated in those words. The courts, over time, have distinguished between the right to travel and the ‘privilege’ to operate a motor vehicle. They have held that the two are not synonymous or interdependent.
“There are many ways a person can travel without operating a motor vehicle. Granted, in this day and age, most travel is via a motor vehicle, but it is not necessary to operate a motor vehicle to travel in a motor vehicle as a passenger. You are correct, the exercise of rights should not involve registration, permits, or taxation. But, while you cannot be charged a fee to register to vote, you do have to register to exercise the right to vote. And, while we constantly talk about free speech, we still have to pay to have that free speech circulated to audiences beyond shouting distances.
“My point is that these pure concepts do require melding with the realities of the world we live in. My free speech doesn’t give me the right to force a printer, or the government the right to force a printer to print my words, for free.
“As you noted, ‘rights’ apply to everyone. A blind person can exercise free speech, vote, can’t be searched without a warrant, and can assemble with others. He also has a right to travel — but the courts would not hold that he had a right to drive an automobile.
“The courts have held that a person has a property interest in a driver’s license and that license cannot be taken away without due process. This removes the driver’s license from the pure definition of “privilege,” but it does not raise it to the level of an enumerated right.
“I realize that this does not fit your view of how this issue should be judged. However, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that the courts in this country would rule that driving a motor vehicle is a right that cannot be regulated or taxed by the government. They have had that opportunity in the past, and you and I are witnesses to how they decided these questions.”
From Gary Biller, Feb 2012, responding to another inquiry
“I believe that stating we have an inalienable right to drive when the truth is that it is a conditioned right because of the licensing requirement, is problematic. If the media picks up on even a simple statement on our website and presses the matter, it becomes awkward to explain.
“An earlier comment I made to others:
“This discussion has taken an interesting turn from opposing a tyrannical government for tagging our vehicles to current distress over a story published by the NMA over a year ago. (The Driver License: Is It Necessary?, Nov/Dec 2010 issue of Driving Freedoms)
“Traveling by private automobile is a right. But that right is muddied by a system the government put into place in 1913 when the first driver’s license was issued, a system that has become well-entrenched over the past 100 years. Driving is a right, but it is hybridized by the government’s requirement for driver certification.”
From Jim Walker, Feb 2012, in the same email discussion thread
“Driving is a right — IF done safely and competently. Being licensed is the way a government can revoke that right — IF the person repeatedly drives unsafely or incompetently. I have NO problem with driver’s licenses being controlled with rational traffic laws designed for safety only.
“I have BIG problems with driver’s licenses being used as the club for financial performance or other things unrelated to driving safety.
“I do NOT want the repeatedly convicted high-BAC driver on the road, or the one who runs from police causing accidents, or the one who repeatedly causes accidents by incompetence, etc.”
From Gary Biller, Oct 2013, in a separate email exchange
“The NMA position that the sole purpose of the driver’s license is to certify competence as the operator of a motorized vehicle remains unchanged. In other words, public safety is served by requiring a certain level of knowledge and skill for those who get behind the wheel of a vehicle on public streets.
“Let’s look at this another way. Traffic signs that regulate the actions of drivers can also restrict the freedom of travel to some degree. High-occupancy vehicle lanes prohibit certain drivers from entering under penalty of law. One-way streets prevent drivers from moving freely. “No Parking” signs restrict how drivers come and go. Would the same defense work in those cases, basically saying the state has no right to hinder our movements on the road?”