Examining Racial Inequality and Reform Through Driver's License Access (2022-2023)


Lack of access to transportation has long been acknowledged as a barrier to employment, with most research focusing on lack of car ownership. However, the lack of a valid driver’s license is another type of transportation barrier that is less understood, and millions of people in the U.S. have had their driver’s licenses suspended for failure to pay fines from traffic citations. By disrupting employment, revoking the driver’s licenses of those who cannot pay court fees can further disrupt their ability to pay, creating a vicious cycle and preventing self-sufficiency.

Racial and ethnic minorities, in particular Black Americans, are much more likely to have a driver’s license revoked, which contributes to other systemic racial inequalities, such as inequalities in the labor or housing markets. There is relatively little research on the cost incurred by individuals of revoked licenses, the potential benefits of reinstating individuals’ licenses or whether local reform efforts can serve as a structural intervention that reduces racial disparities.

Project Description

Building on the work of the 2021-2022 team, this project team will investigate the role of driver’s license revocation to understand how it affects employment, housing and well-being and exacerbates racial inequalities. The team will investigate this issue in Durham, where 46,000 county residents have a revoked or suspended license. Approximately half of these people had their license revoked or suspended due to failure to appear in court or pay fines.

The proposed study seeks to answer three broad research questions: 

  1. How does the lack of a driver’s license shape individuals’ lived experience in terms of employment, housing, social services and family well-being, and how do these patterns of lived experience differ by race? 
  2. How does license reinstatement affect individuals’ employment and self-sufficiency, and are there additional benefits of reinstatement on family well-being?
  3. How can the Durham Expunction & Restoration Program (DEAR) program be improved so that opportunities for reinstatement can increase?

To answer these questions, the team will evaluate the DEAR program in Durham using DEAR records to identify individuals for in-depth interviews. The team will utilize various methods to recruit participants, including text messages, phone calls and emails. Team members will conduct qualitative interviews via telephone, Zoom or in-person, depending on participant preferences. Interview data will be analyzed for themes and patterns that better inform the team’s understanding of the lived experiences of individuals in Durham and the role of the DEAR program. 

In addition, the team will develop and implement a protocol for interviewing DEAR program staff. Team members will interview DEAR participants, including conducting follow-up interviews to get a sense of change over time. The team will also interview DEAR program staff, to get program operators’ perspectives.

Anticipated Outputs

Academic publications; policy dissemination 

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will be comprised of 2 graduate students and 6 undergraduate students. Students from all majors or disciplines are welcome to apply.

Team members will receive formal training in team-based, qualitative data analysis. Specifically, students will learn how to code qualitative data, develop and refine theoretically relevant codes, and learn how to use qualitative data analysis software. Students will also learn how to synthesize and analyze qualitative data to answer research questions. Team members will contribute to writing academic papers for publication, producing policy briefs or other nonacademic papers, and will have opportunities to present research findings with community stakeholders. Graduate students will gain invaluable mentorship experience through leading subteams of undergraduates.    

The team will meet weekly to share progress and information and for collective problem-solving. In Fall 2022, the team will meet on Thursdays from 1:45-3:15 p.m. Team members will be divided into subteams to facilitate student collective ownership of the project. Subteams will have graduate-undergraduate pairs to facilitate close working relationships. 

Adrienne Jones will serve as the project manager. 

Several team members will be chosen to start work over the summer. Timing and hours for this work are flexible and will be discussed on an individual basis.


  • Summer 2022 (optional): Start training on study protocol; write IRB amendment; clean transcripts
  • Fall 2022: Continue training; clean transcripts; code qualitative data 
  • Spring 2023: Start data analysis, write-up findings and disseminate to community stakeholders
  • Summer 2023 (optional): Prepare manuscripts for submission to peer-reviewed journals


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See earlier related team, Justice Reform Efforts and Effects on Self-Sufficiency (2021-2022).


Image: Durham County Justice Center, by James Willamor, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


Team Leaders

  • Clinton Boyd Jr, Samuel DuBois Cook Ctr on Social Equity
  • Anna Gassman-Pines, Sanford School of Public Policy
  • Adrienne Jones, Public Policy and Sociology–Ph.D. Student
  • Warren Lowell, Public Policy and Sociology–Ph.D. Student

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Durham County Department of Social Services
  • City of Durham