A two-year old lawsuit gets resolved, making it easier for some folks with disabilities to get behind the wheel. UPDATE: Federal judge signs consent judgment that reforms DMV licensing practices for drivers with disabilities

By Thomas Goldsmith

A federal judge on Friday signed a consent judgment resolving a 2014 lawsuit by Disability Rights North Carolina that charged the Division of Motor Vehicles with making drivers with disabilities subject to unnecessary road tests and medical review.

Under the judgment, signed by U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle, DMV “agreed to reform its driver licensing system to ensure that drivers with disabilities are not discriminated against based on disability,” Disability Rights said in a statement.

Natasha Wright and her son. Wright was told by the DMV that she would be restricted from driving on highways, only under 45 mph and could only travel 25 miles from home. Photo courtesy Natasha Wright
One of the Disability Rights NC plaintiffs, Natasha Wright and her son. Wright, who has multiple sclerosis, was told by the DMV that she would be restricted from driving on highways, only under 45 mph and could only travel 25 miles from home. Photo courtesy Natasha Wright

“We’re thrilled,” Disability Rights attorney Holly Stiles said Friday. “This has been a multi-year litigation. Going forward, the DMV has committed to reforming itself in a way that assures that people with disabilities will not be discriminated against.”

“We could have not done this without the cooperation of the DMV and their commitment to this process.”

Attempts to reach DMV officials weren’t successful Friday.

In 2014, Disability Rights North Carolina, an advocacy group representing six drivers with disabilities, filed suit against the Division of Motor Vehicles claiming the DMV denied the drivers due process in protracted dealings. Proposed changes to DMV practices arose during negotiations aimed at resolving the suit.

The Medical Review Program under DMV has provided a means for physicians or relatives of older people who can no longer drive safely to have their licenses taken away. However, the plaintiffs claimed that the program was also being unfairly used to take away driving privileges of people whose disabilities played no role in their ability to drive.

Changes to DMV practices, including repeated testing and other aspects of medical review, emerged during recent negotiations aimed at resolving the suit.

Often, these people were forced to take repeated driving tests at their own expense.

“The DMV has recognized it was time to close the book on the way things have been done,” said Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights NC. “Going forward, North Carolina drivers with disabilities can expect to be treated with the same dignity and respect as all other drivers. Most importantly, they will have legal recourse if their rights are being violated.”

To meet the costs of the proposed agreement, Gov. Pat McCrory put $1.8 million into his budget. However, the House budget calls for $1.7 million in recurring funding and $151,900 in one-time funding, while the recently passed Senate budget only contains $1.3 million for the program.

State Rep. John Torbett (R-Stanley) chairman of the House Appropriations Committee on Transportation, said last week the cost of the settlement will be resolved during budget negotiations between the chambers.

“It’s our understanding that all the involved parties have met and they have somewhat reconciled the differences and this is the path forward,” Torbett said Wednesday. “From what I’ve been told it satisfies all those involved. But we have yet to meet with the Senate for them to do their concurrence or nonconcurrence.”

Representatives of Disability Rights North Carolina, the state attorney general’s office, the Department of Transportation and the Division of Motor Vehicles have already signed the settlement.

A representative of Disability Rights NC declined comment Wednesday because the agreement has not been signed.

“The fact that a driver has a physical or other impairment is not, in itself, a sufficient basis for requiring a road test,” the agreement says. “The Driver License Examiner or other employee of [DMV] ordering the road test must have an articulable basis for believing that the individual may be unable to safely operate a motor vehicle.”

In addition to no longer requiring drivers with non-degenerative diseases to face repeated medical review solely because of their conditions, the agreement would require DMV to take steps including:

  • Providing information on how drivers who have already gone through enhanced road testing and driving assessments conducted by occupational therapists can request removal from the program;
  • Making the process for removal from the program more “easily visible” via DMV letters to affected drivers and in terms to be posted on its website,
  • Removing drivers from the medical review process on their request, if evidence in the driver’s record shows that repeated testing is unnecessary; and
  • Consulting a driver’s previous records to see whether he or she has been tested before, to examine the results of those tests and to assess whether any changes have taken place to warrant a further test.

Under the working agreement, state officials do not admit the plaintiffs’ claims that DMV violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the state constitution and other guarantees. But the document says that DMV leaders agreed “the Medical Review Program must be operated consistent with the mandates of the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act and the North Carolina Constitution…”

The lawsuit charges that DMV often made it hard for people with disabilities to get a license, even lacking evidence that their condition would cause danger when they drove. The original lawsuit claimed that DMV made at least 89 people take additional road tests in three months during 2013, at a cost of as much as $500 per test.

McCrory’s budget recommends hiring 21 contract nurses and seven full-time employees to make sure that drivers with disabilities receive proper treatment during the handling of their licensing and any appeals.

On the House side, the Medical Review Program would add 21 nurses, along with four full-time and three part-time administrative assistants to bring about changes resulting from the Disability Rights case. The Senate’s proposal does not specify how many people would be needed to do the work.

Rose Hoban contributed reporting to this article.

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Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...