The District of Columbia is allowing hundreds of motorists to continue to drive with licenses that should have been revoked or suspended because the city failed to program a computer to record when the drivers had accumulated enough points for traffic offenses to have their licenses taken from them.
As a result, only 1,073 motorists' permits were revoked or suspended in 1980 when they had accumulated eight or more points for such relatively minor infractions as going through a red light, failing to yield the right-of-way and speeding. By comparison, 3,852 drivers lost their licenses in 1974. In 1979, 632 motorists' licenses were lifted and 1,261 were in 1978.
"It's a major oversight," said James Brown, acting head of data processing for the city's Department of Transportation (DOT).
Officials say a large part of the decrease can be attributed to the lack of recording the violations on a computer. However, they also note that the decrease also can be party attributed to the fact that D.C. motorists apparently have become safer drivers as well as the fact that fewer motorists are on the streets because of the advent of the Metro subway system.
Before 1979, the D.C. Superior Court was responsible for handling traffic violations and the records were computerized, according to Thomas M. Downs, DOT's director.
In 1979, DOT took over those duties and planned to program a computer to keep track of each driver's accumulated points for minor traffic violations and flag drivers' records when eight points were accumulated. However, Downs said the department failed to do that because it has been unable to find enough qualified computer operators to properly program the system.
Only nine of the 19 authorized computer operator positions have been filled, Downs said. He said the department has been hampered in finding qualfied computer programmers since most prefer to work for the federal government, which pays more than the District government. He also said that the requirement that city workers live in the District has limited the department's recruitment efforts, although that restriction was lifted recently. He said he hopes to fill the vacancies soon so the computer can be properly programmed and a list of points for all minor traffic offenses can be made.
Under the point system, a motorist's permit can be suspended when he accumulates eight or more points for moving violations or revoked when he compiles 12 or more points in any 18-month period. A suspension is a lesser penalty, which means that a driver loses his license for two or more days, while revocation is more serious and the person whose license is revoked is not allowed to apply for a new license for at least six months.
Different point totals are given for different traffic offenses.Running a traffic sign, a red light, a stop sign or a yellow light are two-point offenses, while failure to yield the right-of-way in which an accident occurs is a three-point infraction. A speeding ticket costs the driver four points.
Those motorists who had their licenses revoked or suspended for eight or more points in 1979 and 1980 came to the attention of DOT because their records had to be checked manually. That would have occurred if there had been an inquiry into their record, such as a hearing in DOT's traffic adjudication branch or if they had committed a traffic violation outside the District.
Motorists who are stopped for more serious violations, such as drunk driving and reckless driving, face charges in D.C. Superior Court, which in turn passes that information onto DOT, which is able to record that information on its computers. In 1980, there were 3,939 persons whose licenses were suspended or revoked for the more serious violations.
Some motorists who have had their licenses suspended or revoked for traffic violations expressed surprise when a reporter told them that not everyone is being caught. "They're just lucky," said one Southeast Washington man whose driver's permit was taken for driving while intoxicated.
However, one 17-year-old who had his license suspended when he was clocked going 102 miles an hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone in Fairfax County, said, "I sure don't think it's fair."