Six people with disabilities in North Carolina are suing over what they say are discriminatory practices by the state's Division of Motor Vehicles. (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Six people with disabilities in North Carolina are suing over what they say are discriminatory practices by the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles. (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Once a year, every year, the state Division of Motor Vehicles threatens to cancel Pam Dickens’ license to drive.

That’s how the DMV’s Medical Evaluation Program works. It sends out letters to selected licensed drivers with some version of this ultimatum: You have 30 days to prove you’re still a safe driver.

Some drivers who fall into the medical program are elderly people in declining health. Doctors, police officers or concerned family members ask the DMV to determine whether their driving abilities have deteriorated.

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And there are younger drivers, such as Dickens, who pass the DMV’s written tests, vision tests and road tests — but are forced to keep proving themselves because they have physical disabilities.

Even after they pass extra DMV tests, and after their doctors confirm their fitness to drive without special scrutiny, these drivers sometimes find it impossible to overcome the DMV’s nagging suspicions. The letters keep coming.

“I don’t want to have to face, every year, the threat of losing my license and my independence for no reason,” said Dickens, 53, of Hillsborough.

Now, in a lawsuit filed by Dickens and five other drivers with disabilities, a federal judge has ruled that the DMV must answer allegations that its Medical Evaluation Program illegally discriminates against safe, capable drivers. Judge Terrence W. Boyle of North Carolina’s Eastern U.S. District Court refused last week to dismiss the suit, which accuses the DMV of violating the federal Rehabilitation Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

In its failed motion to dismiss the case, the DMV denies that its requirements for driving and medical tests amount to discrimination. The motion cites state law giving the DMV commissioner broad power to reject medical recommendations, while placing the burden on drivers to prove their fitness.

The DMV said it hopes to resolve the lawsuit quickly.

“NCDMV remains committed to providing the highest level of road safety, for the individual and motoring public,” spokesman Brian Smith said late Monday by email.

The lawsuit portrays the DMV as a dark bureaucracy — arbitrary and mysterious, unresponsive and unaccountable.

The six drivers all say they’ve had no driving problems. They were funneled into the medical review program by local DMV employees, not by doctors or troopers. They submitted to medical exams and, when asked, special behind-the-wheel tests with occupational therapists, all at their own expense.

But there seems to be no exit from this program. Drivers sometimes are told they can ask for a hearing to appeal a license revocation but are instructed not to question the DMV’s orders for more tests and more proof.

Dickens was born with spina bifida but had few physical limitations — she worked, drove and played tennis — until she lost the use of her legs after a spinal cord injury in 2010. So she installed hand controls in her car and learned to drive without her feet.

“It’s not hard to do,” Dickens said”. “You have to train your brain to react with your hands, really fast. Now it’s the way I drive.”

When she rolled her wheelchair into a DMV office in 2010 to renew her license, the examiner asked her to prove her driving skills in her specially equipped car. She passed the road test.

Her renewed license was to expire in 2018, but she received her first 30-day warning letter in 2011. Now, each year, Dickens’ doctor fills out the DMV’s long medical questionnaires and writes a letter explaining that her medical condition is stable and there is no need to require further evaluations.

“I understand for some people they may become weaker or their cognitive abilities may be changing,” Dickens said. “But mine are not. I’m just paralyzed. My reflexes are just as quick as they were 20 years ago.”

The lawsuit was filed by Disability Rights North Carolina, a nonprofit advocacy group, which also joined the case as a plaintiff. The group points to language in the Americans With Disabilities Act that says a government agency’s safety measures must be “based on actual risks, not on mere speculation, stereotypes or generalizations about individuals with disabilities.”

Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina, said she supports the DMV’s goal of keeping unsafe drivers off the road. But the medical program isn’t fair to drivers with disabilities, she said.

“I think (the) DMV equates any physical disability as: This person probably cannot drive safely,” Smith said. “What we want is a fairly written policy and protocol based on real information about the ability of an individual to drive.”

Dickens and other plaintiffs say they can’t reason with the DMV because they can’t get the DMV on the phone.

“They would say you need to speak with so-and-so, and they’ll call you back,” Dickens said. “And nobody would ever call me back. I’ve never been able to speak with anybody.”

After plaintiff Rebecca Kay, 60, of Raleigh passed her road test, the DMV ordered her to install a knob on her steering wheel, to make it easier to grip. She objected, according to the lawsuit, and the DMV made her take a second road test, which she also passed. Kay was warned that if she objected further, she would face further restrictions. She called the DOT’s disabilities coordinator, waited on hold for 30 minutes, and finally hung up, according to the lawsuit.

Logan Wilson, 18, of Chapel Hill is the lead plaintiff. He has cerebral palsy and uses a steering-wheel knob. After he questioned the DMV’s ban on nighttime driving, the DMV said it would grant a hearing to consider his appeal, then dropped the ban without holding a hearing, according to the lawsuit.

He wants the DMV to accept his doctor’s positive evaluation and release him from the medical review program.

“I feel like they’re disobeying my civil rights,” said Wilson, a high school senior. “I’m fine. I’m healthy.”