Rules of the Road

Can the state really require me to have a license to drive?

Q: Federal law is the highest law, am I correct? And federal law states it is my God-given right as man to have the freedom of travel in pursuit of happiness without being governed, harassed, taxed or held from freedom of movement. It also states that as long as I’m traveling in my own vehicle that I own, and I’m not making cash profit from it, then a state-issued license is just a requirement made by the state police. It’s not required as long as I’m not harming anyone or committing a crime.

A: Okay . . . Where to start? I’ll begin by saying that I sympathize for any officer that stops this driver and has to endure the ensuing encounter. Admittedly, this question is an outlier, but over the last three years of writing this column I’ve received enough of these kinds of questions to realize that there is a much bigger issue here: When someone misunderstands the law it can have real-life consequences.

Sometimes a misunderstanding of the law is harmless. For example, many people think it’s illegal to drive barefoot (it’s not). You may have heard it from your driver’s ed teacher, who told you that driving barefoot gives you less control (which is usually true, unless you’re wearing flip-flops or high heels).

But here’s the most far-fetched explanation I’ve encountered, quoted directly from the source of all suspect information, the internet: “A carjacker/kidnapper will force their victim to continue driving, but will take their shoes so that they can’t make a break for it. So if a cop sees a pair of people in a car and the driver is without shoes, they might assume it’s a hostage situation.”

This explanation lives on the margins of reality, but there are no real consequences to believing it’s illegal to drive barefoot. You’ll just always wear shoes while driving.

In contrast, believing that a driver license is a fake requirement can result in some real problems. We live in a time where you can find the answer to any possible question in seconds. And you can find the wrong answer even faster.

If you’re convinced that you don’t need a driver license to legally drive on public roads, I can assure you that your next traffic stop will not go smoothly for you. I’m no constitutional law expert, but I think I can explain why some people think they don’t need a driver license, and why they’re wrong.

At risk of oversimplifying things, the US Supreme Court has stated that it is “The right of a citizen to travel upon the public highway . . .” The thinking goes, If the Supreme Court says it’s a right to use the highway, the state can’t require me to get a license and then grant me permission to drive, because it’s already my right.

This argument relies mostly on court decisions taken out of context and obsolete legal definitions, but there are people who believe it. I’ve met some of them.

Just for fun, let’s take the no-license-required argument to a logical extreme. If we start with the assumption that any person has the right to travel on any public highway as long as they are not making a profit (an important part of the argument, although ungrounded), they can use any kind of vehicle they want, and they’re not harming anyone else, what’s to stop John Travolta from landing his 747 on I-90, assuming he can find a big enough gap in traffic? (I’ll guess that John Travolta has both a driver license and a pilot’s license, but for the sake of this example let’s pretend he doesn’t.)

What the believers of the no-license-required viewpoint overlook is the fact that even though the federal government doesn’t mandate a national driver license, the US Supreme Court, on multiple occasions, has confirmed a state’s authority to establish licensing requirements for drivers.

Our constitution grants us the right to travel freely, but recognizes that for the well-being of the people, we need systems in place that regulate transportation.

A driver license isn’t about taxation and limiting travel; it’s a verification that the holder has at least a minimal understanding of the shared rules that keep us safe on the roads. Freedom to travel and driver license requirements are really two distinct concepts that the anti-license folks have conflated.

The no-license-needed crowd will try to convince you that all you need during a traffic stop is a clearly articulated explanation to convince the police officer that all his legal training was wrong, that he’s really just a pawn of a corrupt taxation scheme, and that it’s in his best interest to just let you go.

If you try that approach, good luck with that. A strong belief in an incorrect understanding of the law won’t help in court if the entire judicial system disagrees with you.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.
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