Can an Unlicensed Driver Drive in an Emergency?

Can an Unlicensed Driver Drive in an Emergency?

Nadia Tamara A Little Bit of Everything, Laws 2 Comments


Can an Unlicensed Driver Drive in an Emergency?

This is a very controversial and tricky subject. Every country has its own laws and ways of dealing with unlicensed drivers. 

Driving in the United States is considered a privilege rather than a human right. If driving without a license was allowed, even in an emergency situation, there would be far too many loopholes in the system and it would be a gateway for people to go unpunished for breaking the law.

It is against the law for any person to drive without a valid license, no matter what the circumstance or emergency situation is. Every state in the U.S. may punish unlicensed drivers by imposing hefty fines, jail time, or both.

Before you jump to conclusions too soon, let me clarify one thing. While driving without a license is illegal, it does not mean that you are guaranteed a penalty for violating the law because of a dire emergency. In terms of the law, it's a black and white answer: illegal. There's no way around that. Based on the circumstances of the situation, however, the officer may let you go without a penalty. That's entirely up to his discretion, not yours.

Are you taking a risk if you drive without a license? Yes. Will you be penalized for it? Maybe...or maybe not.


Driving without a valid license is illegal

Throughout this article, we will refer to unlicensed drivers as any person who:

  • Never obtained a license
  • Has an expired license
  • Had their license canceled, suspended or revoked

In most cases, if you accidentally left your license at home, you will be asked to present proof of your valid license to a judge and you may be dismissed with a minor fine. If you lost your license, obtain a new one as soon as possible and don’t risk driving without it.


Why would you drive without a license?


In the past, I lived in very remote areas. A few years ago I worked at a California boarding school in a small town of 800 people. The facility was located 30 miles away from any civilization. While it was extremely peaceful, in the time I lived there we experienced several medical emergencies. I remember a situation where one of the teachers fell 20 feet off a ladder. As he lay on the ground in complete shock, he started bleeding from his head. Immediately 911 was called. We waited 40 minutes for an ambulance to arrive and it took another 30 minutes to get him to a hospital. [The good news is that he lived and was able to heal from his injuries.] If we had to re-live the moment, however, I’m sure waiting on an ambulance would have been a secondary option and driving (with or without a license) would have been our first.

Another valid scenario would be the case of a father and son on a hunting trip in the woods. Imagine the father gets injured or becomes unconscious for some reason, the son would be the only person there to get help him. If there is no phone reception at their location, he would have no other option but to drive his father to the nearest city.

In a situation where there is a national emergency or large scale evacuation, it’s almost a given that there will be a lack of medical personnel available, and driving would be the most reasonable thing to do.

In a life or death emergency, would you be willing to risk a criminal citation or jail time for driving without a license?


Has anyone gotten away with driving without a license?


Yes! There have been several stories of persons who experienced a medical emergency while driving and an uninsured driver stepping in to take over the wheel. Here are two incredible stories, one that took place in Florida and another that took place in Texas.

In both of these situations, the children were hailed as heroes. Their brave actions saved people which is what makes these stories remarkable. What these two stories have in common is that the children took over the wheel while the vehicle was in motion during the time that the driver was experiencing a sudden medical emergency. Had they done nothing about it, both cases would have ended up in collisions, thereby possibly resulting in a worse outcome. Luckily nobody was injured as they bravely took over the driver seat.

It’s still important to remember that calling 911 is always an important first response, and then proceeding as instructed. Both of these scenarios could have turned out worse if the child maneuvering the wheel lost control of the vehicle (or bus) and people were severely injured or killed as a result.


Some important factors involved in driving without a license


Under any circumstance, driving without a license is a criminal offense and depending on the state you live in, there can be severe penalties. A study performed in Australia titled Unlicensed Drivers and Car Crash Injury stated that “several studies of unlicensed drivers have suggested that they are more likely to engage in risky driving behaviors such as speeding, drink driving, red-light running, and non-use of seatbelts, than those with a valid license.” This statement makes a lot of sense. In an emergency scenario, the person behind the wheel might not be using their best judgment and with a lack of driving knowledge, an accident is more likely to occur.

If you get caught breaking the law, the offense may leave a mark on your record and may hinder some opportunities in your future. There are many factors that could make a case go in favor or against you. The following are some things to keep in mind that can make your case even worse:

  • The driver is a minor under 18 years old
  • The driver was texting and driving, or another type of distraction was present
  • The driver is from a different state, an immigrant, or an undocumented immigrant
  • The emergency that the person was claiming to be driving for is not valid
  • The driver is involved in an accident
  • The vehicle belongs to someone else and is uninsured
  • There are expired tags on the vehicle
  • The driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time they’re pulled over
  • The driver gives a false identification of themselves at the time they’re pulled over

Infractions like these will be evaluated by the courts on a case by case basis. On the one hand, we already know the act of driving unlicensed is illegal. On the other hand, if the injured person was brought to safety and no other driving violations took place, the offense might be dismissed but this is entirely up to the judge. There are no laws in favor of the person who committed the misdemeanor.


Driving without a license during an emergency

Penalties per state for driving without a license


The following list is based on a first offense penalty and does not take into account any other violations caused by the driver, such as a car accident, injuries, and possibly the death of another person involved.

Again, the following penalties are the laws per state. Whether or not you get charged with an offense is examined on a case-by-case basis, and may be dependent on the officer's discretion of your circumstances. Regardless of the situation, you're taking a risk.



Alabama


  • Without license: Misdemeanor. The fine ranges between $10 and $100. (Alabama Code Section 32-6-18)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: The fine between $100 and $500, plus an additional penalty of $50. The driver's license may be revoked for an additional 6 months and the vehicle may be impounded. This offense may also land you in jail for up to 180 days. (Alabama Code Section 32-6-19)

Alaska


  • Without a license: Not acceptable but penalties are not specific. This violation may receive the same penalties as a suspended license.
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class A misdemeanor. You may be required to do 80 hours of community service and/ or spend 10 days of jail. Your license may be suspended an additional 90 days and your vehicle may be impounded. (Alaska § 28.15.291)

Arizona


  • Without a license: Class 1 misdemeanor. It could carry similar penalties to a suspended license. (Arizona Revised Statutes § 28-3151)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class 1 or 2 misdemeanor. Jail time is a possibility since a class 1 misdemeanor has a penalty of 6 months in jail plus a fine of up to $2,500. Your vehicle may also be impounded.

Arkansas


  • Without a license: Misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500 or up to 90 days in jail. (Arkansas § 27-16-602)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: You may be charged a fine of up to $500 and will have to go to jail for a minimum of 2 days but up to a maximum of 6 months. (Arkansas § 27-16-303).

California


  • Without a license: It can be charged as an infraction or a misdemeanor. If it’s an infraction, you can be charged up to $250. If it’s a misdemeanor, it can be punished by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to 6 months in jail. (California VC 12500)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Misdemeanor. The penalty will include fines and jail time, but this is determined by the judge based on the reason why your license was originally revoked or suspended. (California VC 14601)

Colorado


  • Without a license: Class 2 misdemeanor. This can result in a fine of $150 to $300 and/or 10 to 90 days in jail. (Colorado 42-2-101 C.R.S.)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Misdemeanor. Consequences include jail time and fees of up to $500 (or more depending on the reason your license was originally suspended). (Colorado 42-2-138 C.R.S.)

Connecticut


  • Without a license: Class B Infraction. The consequence is $15 to $100 and proof that you ended up getting a valid driver’s license. (Connecticut General Statutes § 14-36)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Misdemeanor. You can be jailed for up to 90 days and fined between $150 to $200. (Connecticut General Statutes § 14-215(b))

Delaware


  • Without a license: Subject to fines of $50 to $100. (21 Del.C. §2701(a)(1))
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Fines between $500 and $1000 and imprisonment for 30 days and up to 6 months. (21 Del.C. §2756(a))

District of Columbia


  • Without a license: Subject to a $500 fine and imprisonment for up to 90 days. (DC Code section 50-1401.01)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Subject to a $500 fine and imprisonment for up to 90 days. (DC Code section 50-1401.01)

Florida


  • Without a license: Second-degree misdemeanor resulting in a $500 fine and perhaps up to 60 days in jail. (Florida Statutes 322.03)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Criminal offense resulting in a $500 fine and perhaps up to 60 days in jail. (Florida Statutes 322.34)

Georgia


  • Without a license: Penalties include spending 2 days in jail and a $500 fine. (Georgia O.C.G.A. § 40-5-20)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Penalties include spending 2 days in jail and a mandatory minimum fine of $500. (Georgia O.C.G.A. § 40-5-121)

Hawaii


  • Without a license: Considered a traffic crime which carries a consequence of a fine up to $1,000 and up to 30 days in jail. (Hawaii Revised Statutes 286-136(a))
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Considered a traffic crime which carries a consequence of a fine up to $1,000 and up to 30 days in jail. (Hawaii Revised Statutes 286-136(a))

Idaho


  • Without a license: Misdemeanor. The penalty is a fine of several hundred dollars. (Idaho Statutes 49-301)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: This offense carries the penalty of up to $1,000 and a jail sentence of at least 2 days but up to 6 months. Sometimes jail time can be substituted for community service.) (Idaho Statutes 80-8001)

Illinois


  • Without a license: Depending on the situation, you can get charged with a petty offense (at a cost of up to $500 in fines) or as a Class B misdemeanor (with the potential penalty of a $1,500 fine and up to 180 days in jail). (625 ILCS § 6-101)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class A misdemeanor. The penalty includes a fine of $2,500 and up to a year in jail. (625 ILCS § 6-303(a))

Indiana


  • Without a license: This violation carries a fine ranging between $500 and $2,500. Depending on the situation, the judge may prohibit a person from receiving a valid driver’s license within a period of 90 days and up to 2 years. (IC 9-24-1-1) 
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class A infraction with a penalty of up to $10,000. (IC 9-24-19-1 and IC 34-28-5-4)

Iowa


  • Without a license: Misdemeanor. Typically this is punished with a fine of $250. (Iowa Code § 321.174)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Misdemeanor. A fine is imposed ranging between $250 and $1,500. Also, a person may have to go to jail for a period of up to 30 days and pay an additional fine of $650. (Iowa Code § 903.1)

Kansas


  • Without a license: Class B misdemeanor. This includes a penalty of up to 6 months in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000. A person will be prevented from obtaining a valid license for 90 days.
  • Suspended/ revoked license: A suspended license will be suspended for an additional 90 days. Fines start at $100 but can become as high as $1,500 and jail time is mandatory for five days and up to 90 days. (KS Stat § 8-262)

Kentucky


  • Without a license: Class B misdemeanor which is punishable by a fine. (Kentucky Revised Statute § 186.410)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class B misdemeanor punishable by jail time of up to 90 days and an additional 6 months of license suspension. (Ky Code § 186.620)

Louisiana


  • Without a license: This offense is subject to a fine of up to $500. (Louisiana Revised Statutes § 32:52)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: This offense is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and jail time of up to 6 months. (LRS § 32:415)

Maine


  • Without a license: This violation is subject to a fine of $250. (Maine Title 29A § 1251)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: This violation is subject to a fine of $250 to $600 and possibly a week in jail. (Maine Title 29-A § 2412-A)

Maryland


  • Without a license: A penalty of up to $500. (Maryland Code § 16-101)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: A penalty of up to $1,000 and/or imprisonment of up to one year. (Maryland Code §16-303)

Massachusetts


  • Without a license: A fine of up to $500. (Massachusetts Code Ch. 90 § 10)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: A fine of $500 to $1,000 and up to 10 days in jail. Also, your license may be suspended for a longer period of time. (Massachusetts Code Ch. 90 § 23)

Michigan


  • Without a license: Misdemeanor. This penalty can result in a fine of $150 to $500. (Michigan Motor Vehicle Code § 257.325)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: You will be subject to a fine of $500 and will have to spend up to 93 days in jail. (Michigan Motor Vehicle Code §257.904)

Minnesota


  • Without a license: The consequence for this driving offense can be a fine of up to $200 plus surcharges. (Minnesota Statutes § 171.24)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: The consequence can be a fine of up to $200 plus surcharges. In some cases, it can be deemed a gross misdemeanor costing up to $1,000 and/or one year in jail. (Minnesota Statutes § 171.24)

Mississippi


  • Without a license: A fine will be required of $200 to $500. (Mississippi Code § 63-1-5)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: A fine will be required of $500.

Missouri


  • Without a license: Class D misdemeanor.  (Missouri Revised Statutes § 302.020) 
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class A misdemeanor, with a fine of $300 to $1,000, and possibly a year in jail. (Missouri Revised Statutes § 302.321)

Montana


  • Without a license: This offense will be subject to a fine of up to $500 and/or at least 2 days but not exceeding 6 months in jail. (Montana Code § 61-5-102)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: This offense will be subject to a fine of up to $500 and/or up to 6 months in jail. (Montana Code § 61-5-212)

Nebraska


  • Without a license: Class 3 misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500. (Nebraska Revised Statute § 60-484)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class 3 misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500 and up to 3 months in jail. (Nebraska Revised Statue § 28-106(1))

Nevada


  • Without a license: Misdemeanor which requires a fine of up to $500. (Nevada Revised Statutes § 483.230) 
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Misdemeanor which requires a fine of $500 to $1,000 and up to 6 months in jail.

New Hampshire


  • Without a license: Class B misdemeanor including fines and possible jail time. Also, there’s the possibility that the person will be subject to a four-point violation which will make it difficult for obtaining a valid license in the future. (New Hampshire Revised Statutes § 263:1)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Misdemeanor including fines of up to $1,000 and possible jail time.

New Jersey


  • Without a license: The penalty includes fines of up to $500 and the possibility of up to 60 days in jail. This offense can hinder a person from obtaining a valid driver’s license for 180 days. (N.J.S.A. 39:3-10) 
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class B or Class A misdemeanor. Fines ranging from $1,200 to $2,000 and possible jail time for up to 1 year. (N.J.S.A. 39:3-11)

New Mexico


  • Without a license: Misdemeanor. (NM Statutes § 66-5-2)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: The punishment is a fine of $300 but up to $1,000 and a minimum of 7 days in jail but up to a maximum of a year. The vehicle will be immobilized for 30 days. (NM Stat § 66-5-39)

New York


  • Without a license: Misdemeanor resulting in a fine of $75 but up to $300, and/or up to 15 days in jail. (New York VTC § 509)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: This offense results in a $500 to $5,000 fine an up to 180 days in jail. (New York VTC § 511)

North Carolina


  • Without a license: A penalty of up to $500. (North Carolina Code § 20-7)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class 3 misdemeanor, including a fine from $200 to $2,500. (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-35)

North Dakota


  • Without a license: Class B misdemeanor. (ND Code § 39-06.1-11) 
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Penalties are found under ND Code § 39-06.1-11.

Ohio


  • Without a license: First-degree misdemeanor, with a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to 180 days in jail. (Ohio Revised Statutes § 4507.02)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or 500 hours of community service. (Ohio Revised Statutes § 4510.12)

Oklahoma


  • Without a license: Misdemeanor punished by a fine of $50 to $300 and/or up to 30 days in jail. (Oklahoma Statutes 47 § 11-902(A))
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Misdemeanor punished by a fine of at least $100 but not exceeding $500, and/or up to 1 year in jail. (OK Stat § 47-6-303)

Oregon


  • Without a license: Class B traffic violation with a fine of up to $2,500 and up to 6 months in jail. (ORS 807.010)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class A traffic violation with a fine of $1,000 but up to $6,250 and up to 1 year in jail. (ORS 811.175)

Pennsylvania


  • Without a license: This offense is subject to a $200 fine. (Pennsylvania Statutes § 1501)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: This offense is subject to a fine of up to $500. (Pennsylvania Statutes § 1543)

Rhode Island


  • Without a license: This offense is subject to a fine of $250 to $500 and up to 30 days in jail. (Rhode Island Statutes § 31-11-18) 
  • Suspended/ revoked license: This offense is subject to a fine of $250 to $500 and possibly a minimum of 10 days in jail. (Rhode Island Statutes § 31-11-18.1)

South Carolina


  • Without a license: Misdemeanor. This violation is punished by a fine of up to $300 and possibly up to 30 days in jail. (S.C. Statutes § 56-1-20) 
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Misdemeanor. This is punishable by a $300 fine and possibly a maximum of 30 days in jail. (SC Code § 56-1-440)

South Dakota


  • Without a license: Class 2 misdemeanor. (SD Laws § 32-12-22)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class 1 or 2 misdemeanor. (SD Laws § 32-12-65)

Tennessee


  • Without a license: Class C misdemeanor. It is punishable by a fine of up to $50 and up to 30 days in jail. (Tenn. Codes Annotated § 55-50-351)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: This offense is subject to a fine of up to $500 and up to 6 months in jail.

Texas


  • Without a license: This violation is subject to a fine of up to $200. (Texas Code § 521.021)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class C or B misdemeanor. Class C is subject to a fine of up to $500 and a Class B misdemeanor is subject to up to 6 months in jail.

Utah


  • Without a license: This is an infraction with fines of up to $750.
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class C misdemeanor and subject to a fine of up to $750 and up to 90 days in jail. Also could result in a Class B misdemeanor. (Utah Code § 53-3-227)

Vermont


  • Without a license: This violation is subject to jail time of up to 60 days and/or a fine of up to $5,000. (23 V.S.A. § 601)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Misdemeanor that will result in a fine of up to $5,000 and/or jail time of up to 2 years. (24 V.S.A. § 674)

Virginia


  • Without a license: Class 2 misdemeanor, including a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 6 months in jail. Also, a person’s ability to obtain a valid driver’s license can be suspended for up to 90 days. (Virginia Statutes § 46.2-300) 
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Class 1 misdemeanor, including a fine of up to $2,500.

Washington


  • Without a license: This offense is subject to a $250 fine. (RCW 46.20.015)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Third-degree misdemeanor, which carries the penalty of a $1,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail.

West Virginia


  • Without a license: Misdemeanor. (W. Va Code §17B-2-1)
  • Suspended/ revoked license: This offense is subject to a fine of a minimum of $100 and up to $500. (W. Va Code §17B-4-3.)

Wisconsin


  • Without a license: Misdemeanor. (Wisconsin Code § 343.05(3)(a))
  • Suspended/ revoked license: This offense is subject to a fine between $200 and $600 and/or up to 6 months in jail. (Wisconsin Code § 343.44)

Wyoming


  • Without a license: There is no specific penalty stated however this offense would be in violation of WY Statutes § 31-7-106.
  • Suspended/ revoked license: Misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $750 and/or up to 6 months in jail. (WY Statutes § 31-7-134)

As you can see, driving without a license in any state is considered a punishable crime. Ultimately it’s up to the court to make the final call on the penalty, if they choose to impose one.


Uninsured drivers


A person who is unlicensed is consequently uninsured. What this means is that if the driver gets in an accident, they will have to pay out of pocket the costs associated with the accident including the possibility of jail time if someone is fatally injured. Again, there is a huge risk involved in deciding to get behind the wheel of a car illegally.

Note that every state will also punish those who drive a vehicle without insurance. even if they are in possession of a valid license. In such a situation, the driver may be subject to hefty fines.


In conclusion


People don’t behave the same when they’re under pressure or under a state of shock or panic. Some people are able to properly manage a high-stress situation. For the most part, however, it’s common and natural to make poor or irrational decisions which can put us and others into greater danger.

The wisest thing to do in an emergency situation is to call 911 and follow any instructions they give you over the phone. If there is no phone reception and it’s not possible to get through to 911, try to stay as calm as possible and use your best judgment as to how to proceed. If there is someone available nearby with a license, ask them to drive. It is tempting to speed or run red lights in an emergency scenario, but please remember that you’re not the only person on the road and you don’t have sirens like medical vehicles do. If you violate any traffic laws while driving, be mindful that you are putting yourself and a lot of other drivers and pedestrians in danger. In addition to that, the fines and jail time associated with driving without a license are hefty and may not be worth it in the end.


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in August 2018 and has since been improved and updated.


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