Wealth-Based Driver’s License Suspensions: Driven to Poverty

Category: Best visualization (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United States

Organisation: American Civil Liberties Union

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 14/11/2019

Credit: Sophie Beiers, Rhonda Friberg, Brooke Watson, Nusrat Choudhury and Allen Tan

Project description:

This piece visually presents the stories of two women whose driver’s licenses were suspended due to being unable to afford their traffic fines and fees. The clients’ experiences expose how South Carolina’s punitive, wealth-based driver’s license suspension system makes it harder for people who are already financially struggling pay their debts and care for themselves and their families. Wealth-based driver’s license suspension ris a racially skewed legal system where people who cannot afford traffic tickets are punished more harshly than people who have the resources to pay. We illustrate the burden our clients face in their daily lives and fight

Impact reached:

It is the ACLU’s stance that wealth-based driver’s license suspensions violate the U.S. Constitution — the Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection of the law require that one’s inability to pay is considered before being punished for the nonpayment of a court fine. Additionally, due to longstanding racial disparities in poverty and wealth, Black South Carolinians are disproportionately harmed. Black people make up 48% of those with driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay traffic tickets while making up only 27% of South Carolina’s population. The ACLU sued South Carolina and North Carolina in two lawsuits: White v. Shwedo and Johnson v. Jessup. These lawsuits seek to end the suspension of driver’s licenses without access to a proper hearing and without first determining that individuals can afford to pay. We are currently waiting to hear back from the courts. Through this interactive visual story, we hoped to illuminate just how burdensome everyday and necessary activities, like caring for a child or driving to work, might be for the many thousands impacted by wealth-based license suspensions in South Carolina, and we sought to visualize just why our legal stance on this is so important. 


Techniques/technologies used:

We used R to analyze the overall impact of South Carolina’s policy of automatically suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets, as well as the racial disparities in who this policy affects. We used d3.js, scrollama.js, Vue and Adobe Illustrator to design and create the interactive graphics that tell our clients’ stories.

Our process involved iterating on mock-ups of the two visualizations (using Figma) and building (and re-building) the interactivity between design feedback sessions. We were lucky to have access to a photographer who was able to capture even more of our clients’ stories through portraits and videos. 

What was the hardest part of this project?

Our teams are fairly new to the ACLU, and this was the first collaborative (and published) effort between the Analytics and Product Technology teams. This was also our first interactive “scrollytelling” piece on “graphics.aclu.org” and was created shortly after a website redesign. Creating visualizations without an existing system in place (and with a new technology stack!), was a challenge at times. For some of us, this was our first time using the Vue framework combined with d3.js. 

Additionally, deciding on how to visualize burden in the right way for each client was a process. Each client had a separate and distinct story despite both having their driver’s licenses suspended because they couldn’t afford their traffic tickets. Janice, for instance, spent much more time and money getting to work and to simple errands every day. At first, we thought about showing a map of the almost impossible public transit paths she takes now compared to her old driving routes, but we didn’t feel that comparison in map form effectively showed a burden. We ultimately landed on using the length of lines and the number of stop points to both show how complex and long her commute has become. Emily’s world, on the other hand, simply got smaller without the use of a car — she could no longer get to certain locations and had to give up work, family visits, and her children’s extracurricular activities. After many iterations, we agreed that the effect of removing locations on a map one after another would visually represent just how much smaller her world has become.  

Though challenging at times, we are proud of the way we illuminated two individual stories to bring light to a much larger problem.  

What can others learn from this project?

There are almost always multiple ways to visualize similar effects. We learned how important it is to brainstorm at least three ways to visualize something before getting too deep into one. Lastly, it can be easy to overlook individual stories behind large amounts of data, but it’s often important to bring these stories to the forefront; we hope that others are inspired by our use of “small data” to visually represent the burden endured by just two people in a (hopefully) powerful and unique way. 

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