Monday, August 20, 2007

Drivers Responsibilty Program under fire: Many Texans lose licenses in driver points program

By Brandi Grissom - El Paso Times Austin BureauAUSTIN -- Texas has yanked the licenses of more than 1.5 million drivers in the past three years because they failed to pay expensive state surcharges for traffic violations.
The Driver Responsibility Program was supposed to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for emergency medical centers and help make Texas roads safer.

Instead, critics say, it has clogged local courts, created more dangerous drivers and sucked poor Texans into a downward legal spiral that makes them poorer.

"The system is terribly broken," said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso.

Proponents of the program lawmakers adopted in 2003 acknowledge that it hasn't lived up to expectations. But they say that it has provided millions for Texas hospitals, and that changes lawmakers approved this year should make it more effective.

The debate over so-called bad-driver fees is one taking shape in other states, too, as governments look for more ways to collect money without raising taxes. In Virginia, the most recent state to adopt surcharges, outraged drivers have taken the state to court, and some lawmakers are already calling for repeal of the 2-month-old law.

In Van Buren County, Mich., where a bad-driver program started at the same time as Texas', Circuit Judge William Buhl said his court has been inundated with unlicensed drivers who can't afford to get right with the law.

"They look at it and say, 'This doesn't make any sense. This isn't fair,' " he said, "and they're right."

Licenses lost

Since 2004, the Texas Department of Public Safety has sent 1.5 million license suspension notifications for failure to pay annual surcharges ranging from $100 to $2,000, according to data obtained under the Texas Public Information Act.

Under the Driver Responsibility Program, the department collects surcharges after drivers pay fines and court costs that initially come with traffic violations.

DPS data show that bad-driver program suspensions outstripped the number of license revocations caused by all other types of offenses in the past three years.

Nearly 90 percent of the bad-driver suspensions, more than 1.3 million, resulted from drivers who didn't have insurance or a valid license.

Those offenses, according to a January legislative report, occurred more frequently among drivers living in low-income areas.

El Paso Municipal Court Judge Regina Arditti said drivers often come before her with dozens of tickets that pile up because they can't afford to pay.

They get pulled over for speeding or some other offense, don't have insurance, and then can't pay the fines. Police issue a warrant. They finally go into Arditti's court to clear up the situation, which is already expensive, and then find out they will have to pay hundreds, if not thousands, more to the state.

"It breaks my heart," she said. "I, personally, know these fees are really high, but I can't do anything."

Nearly 10 percent of El Paso residents earlier this summer faced warrants for their arrest. Of about 60,000 warrants, at least half were issued for offenses that trigger state surcharges, according to research Shapleigh's office conducted.

Invalid license cases statewide have exploded since the Department of Public Safety started collecting bad-driver surcharges, said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.

One in five misdemeanor cases in some counties, he said, involve drivers who got behind the wheel with a suspended license.

"They do it again and again, and that clogs the misdemeanor court system," he said.

Local governments tired of footing the bill for jail time and county court costs this year asked legislators to reduce the penalties for driving without a license.

Starting Sept. 1, the offense will be downgraded, carrying a smaller fine and no jail time.

Edmonds said that move would probably help the courts.

But another effect he expects is contrary to the deterrent purpose of the Driver Responsibility Act.

"You may actually see more people willing to risk" driving without a license, he said.

Hospitals gain some

When lawmakers started the bad-driver program in 2003, the state faced a $10 billion budget shortfall, and leaders had vowed not to raise taxes.

James Cooley, chief of staff for state Rep. Diane Delisi, R-Temple, who wrote the Driver Responsibility Act, said state trauma centers were at a crisis point and bad-driver surcharges were the fairest way to drum up needed income.

"Half of what ends up at trauma centers comes out of auto wrecks," he said.

Legislative predictions indicated that by 2006 the program would generate more than $300 million a year, half of which would go to trauma centers.

In three years, though, DPS has collected just $275 million, about 32 percent of the surcharges it has billed.

Trauma centers have gotten about $150 million of that.

Not as much as hospitals hoped for, yes, said Dinah Welsh, Texas Hospital Association senior director for advocacy and public policy. But it's definitely better than before the program.

"It's been significant," she said. "There's no question about that."

Since the money began flowing, she said, 55 new trauma centers have opened across the state, meaning more places for emergency care and more lives saved.

Thomason Hospital has received more than $4.8 million for trauma care since 2004 and is hoping for an additional $500,000 this year.

"That's a huge chunk of change," said Lois Blough, Thomason's director of emergency, trauma and neurosurgical services.

Looking for fixes

In 1984, New Jersey became the first state to set up a bad-driver program.

This July, Virginia became the sixth state to impose the fees this year. Now, the state is facing a lawsuit for applying the fees only to Virginians, and public outcry has some lawmakers calling for a repeal.

Michigan's Judge Buhl said he tried to warn the lawmakers. He e-mailed them information about the unlicensed drivers he sees who aren't dangerous, just too poor to pay thousands in fines.

"We're generating revenues at the expense of creating a huge underclass," he said.

Michigan judges, he said, have seen so many unlicensed drivers that they are looking for ways around the law to keep already full jails from overflowing.

That, he said, could inadvertently result in putting truly dangerous drivers back on the roads.

Buhl said it makes his blood boil to hear people call bad-driver fees highway safety measures.

"The truth is it's a moneymaker," he said.

State Sen. Shapleigh said high traffic fines should not be used as a substitute for an adequate tax system to pay for vital needs such as trauma care.

He has called for a legislative study to examine how the Driver Responsibility Program affects low-income Texans and whether it is hurting them disproportionately.

"The fines should be scaled to the offense," Shapleigh said. "What we're trying to do is change behavior, not create debtors' prisons."

Until lawmakers can figure out a better way to operate the program, he said, the surcharges should stop.

In January, the Legislative Budget Board recommended that lawmakers scale back the fines and create more flexibility so low-income Texans could afford to pay the fines.

Lawmakers did give the DPS more options for payment plans, but did not lower the surcharges.

Cooley, state Rep. Delisi's chief of staff, said that the program could improve in efficiency but that money from the surcharges is critical to hospitals.

He wants to see whether changes legislators adopted this year -- scaled-back penalties for driving without a license and more-flexible payment plans -- solve some of the program's problems.

"In the end," Cooley said, "we just want people to obey traffic laws."

Texas Driver Responsibility Program details
How the Texas Driver Responsibility Program works:
The accumulation of six points on your driver record withing a period of 36 months, or three years, will require an annual $100 surcharge for three years.

Points are racked up for convictions on moving violations like speeding or running a red light. After six points, the DPS requires a driver to pay $100 each year for three years.
After a driver accumulates six points, each additional point will cost a driver $25 a year.
Being caught driving without insurance or without a valid license will earn a driver an automatic surcharge of up to $250 a year for three years.
Annual surcharges for driving while intoxicated offenses can cost up to $2,000.

Source: Texas Department of Public Safety

License suspensions, and why
The number of unpaid surcharge notices resulting in driver license suspensions since 2004, and the reason for the suspensions:

For accruing six or more points: 16,187.

Driving while intoxicated: 183,239.

No insurance or driving with invalid license: 883,069.

No driver license: 459,380.
Source: Texas Department of Public Safety.

Top 10 counties
Top 10 counties with suspended licenses under the Driver Responsibility Program from 2003 to 2006, and the number of licenses suspended in each:
Dallas 101,507
Bexar 47,909
Tarrant 45,871
El Paso 41,152
Travis 31,562
Harris 23,293
Hidalgo 21,413
Denton 15,082
Collin 13,533
Galveston 11,460
Source: Legislative Budget Board.

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