A new bill introduced in Rhode Island aims to provide an option for autistic drivers to alert law enforcement officers about their disability prior to traffic stops to prevent potentially dangerous misunderstandings.
The proposed legislation, similar to a law passed in Utah earlier this year, would allow the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to offer optional driver’s licenses that clearly designate the driver has autism, along with decals that can be affixed to a vehicle in a “conspicuous place” to give a heads-up to police officers during traffic stops.
Drivers would also have the option to receive blue envelopes containing information on ways to enhance effective communication with police officers.
For autistic drivers, being pulled over or encountering an emergency situation while driving can be a frightening experience.
Joanne G. Quinn, the executive director of The Autism Project, emphasized the need for better communication between law enforcement officers and individuals on the autism spectrum.
“There is no way to know how you’ll react in one of those encounters … and sometimes individuals’ reactions or how they answer a question can get them into trouble with an officer who doesn’t know they’re autistic,” she said.
While supporters of the bill argue that it will improve safety for autistic drivers, some advocates have expressed concerns that the specialized license could lead to discrimination and harassment.
Mireille Sayaf, the executive director of the Ocean State Center for Independent Living, wrote a letter to the House of Representatives’ Health and Human Services Committee, stating that designating an individual’s disability in big letters on an official ID could “lead to stereotyping and breaches of the individual’s confidentiality.”
During a hearing on the bill, 17-year-old Rhode Island resident Toby Silva, who is on the autism spectrum, expressed support for the bill, saying that the goal is to avoid misunderstandings between officers and drivers with disabilities.
Quinn also supported the intention behind the bill, but suggested that the wording or markings on the licenses and car decals should be more discreet, proposing a blue dot or strip instead.
“Either it’s a pullover or a crash, they see the [marker], hopefully, they are educated to know what it is, and in the glove compartment is information about the driver,” Quinn explained. “The purpose for our community is if it’s a stop in the highway it gives the officer a heads-up.”
Rhode Island House Representative Samuel Azzinaro, who introduced the bill, stated that the language is not final, and he is open to the community’s suggestions for changes.
“We need the neurodivergent voice and we need them at the table to tell us what works best for them,” Quinn said in regard to the bill’s current language.