NBC 5 Responds

Chicago Man Labeled ‘Problem Driver' By Mistake, Prevented From Getting License

When a Chicago man learned he was labeled a ‘problem driver’ by mistake, correcting the false alert turned out to be a difficult challenge

NBC Universal, Inc.

Are you a “problem driver”?

It’s a label that can carry serious weight with states flagging drivers whose privileges have been revoked, suspended, or denied.

If a person is flagged by a state in the “National Driver Register's Problem Driver Pointer System” (PDPS) – a database maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and used by all 50 states –  that person will be prevented from getting new or renewed licenses in other states.

But some drivers have reported they were flagged by states they don’t live in, even though they have spotless driving records where they live. 

The Secretary of State's office said more than 20,000 Illinois drivers have been flagged in the PDPS since its inception in the 1990's.

It turns out, the reason why some people are flagged could be as simple as the driver having a common name, matching real ‘problem drivers’ in other states.

John F. Brown, out of Chicago, contacted NBC 5 Responds when he learned he was flagged in the PDPS last year. 

The flag was preventing John from renewing his Illinois driver’s license, due to expire this year, and time was running out. 

“[The state] said that I've been put on the ‘problem driver system’, and I had never heard of that,” John said.     

John received the troubling news from the Illinois Secretary of State’s office.

Unable to renew his license, John said he was stunned to find out how he had landed on the list.

Driving tickets and violations in two states John has never stepped foot in: two tickets in Maryland from 30 years prior, and another violation in Pennsylvania.

Untraveled roads that all led back to his common name: John F. Brown.

John F. Brown in Illinois was flagged as a 'problem driver' based on the bad behavior of two other drivers - in Maryland and Pennsylvania - who shared the same name and date-of-birth as him.

The drivers in Maryland and Pennsylvania had the same full name and date-of-birth as John in Illinois. At least one, though, had very different markers.

“The person in Maryland was a Black person, and something like 6’8”. I’m 5’10”,” John said.

Once a driver is flagged in the PDSP, as John soon learned, it can be difficult to get off.

And even though it was the state’s mistake, it was John’s burden to remove the PDPS alerts.

John had to get notarized “not-the-same-person” letters from the District Court of Maryland, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation; letters he could then present to a state Driver’s Services office here in Illinois.

A spokesperson for NHTSA could not say how many U.S. drivers are impacted by errors like this each year. NBC 5 Responds filed a Freedom of Information request for records detailing these kinds of errors. The request is still pending.

The agency said a person’s name and date-of-birth are not the only factors that are used to flag a driver in the system. 

“The [Problem Driver Pointer] system returns probable matches depending on the information provided by the states in its system,” NHTSA said. “It is the states’ responsibility to use this information to identify the correct problem driver.” 

And if a mistake is made, NHTSA said states are responsible “for correcting or removing individuals flagged in error.”

“If consumers believe they are incorrectly identified on the system, they should work with their state DMV to resolve the issue. If the state is being non-responsive, consumers can contact NHTSA for assistance,” the agency said.

For more information on how to contact NHTSA if you’re labeled a ‘problem driver’ in error, click here. Also, NBC 5 Responds would like to hear from you. Click here to tell us your story. 

With the out-of-state proof in hand that he’s not a problem driver, John said he still couldn’t get his license renewed here in Illinois, so he turned to NBC 5 Responds for help. 

When we shared John’s ‘letters of innocence’ with the Illinois Secretary of State, the office agreed and permitted him his hard-fought license renewal.

The state also confirmed that John Brown out of Illinois is no longer flagged in the PDPS.

While relieved, John still feels he should have never been flagged to begin with, and that there needs to be an easier way to correct false alerts.

“We should have had a way to correct the problem right away, but no one really thought ahead of time like that,” John said.

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