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Surcharge payments OK'd
February 12, 2009

Getting their licenses back could become a little easier for El Pa-soans like Christine who lost their driving privileges when they couldn't afford to pay steep state charges for traffic violations.

Written by Brandi Grissom, The El Paso Times


AUSTIN -- Getting their licenses back could become a little easier for El Pa-soans like Christine who lost their driving privileges when they couldn't afford to pay steep state charges for traffic violations.

"With an installment plan and incentives, I can definitely start to make pay-ments and get it taken care of," said Christine, who asked to be identified by only her middle name for fear of being arrested.

The Texas Public Safety Commission on Tuesday approved changes to the Driver Responsibility Program that are designed to encourage people like Christine to pay off their fines and get right with the law.

Texas lawmakers approved the responsibility program in 2003. It requires drivers to pay fees to the state in addition to fines that already come with the violations.

Drivers pay annual surcharges of $100 to $2,000 for traffic violations in-cluding speeding and driving while intoxicated.

About half the money from the surcharges helps pay for trauma care at places such as Thomason Hospital, and about half helps pay for roads.

Last year, lawmakers realized that most of the surcharges were going unpaid, and that many Texans were losing their licenses as a result of failing to pay. "People cannot afford to pay $2,500 for a traffic ticket," said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso.

Since the program began, the Texas Department of Public Safety has collected less than 35 percent of more than $1 billion in surcharges it has billed, ac-cording to data the department provided.

Legislators in 2007 approved a bill that allowed the department more flexi-bility in how it collects the surcharges.

Under the rules adopted Tuesday, drivers who default on their payments will be able to pay in installments. Those who comply with the law and pay surcharges on time could see the fees reduced. And the department will make more efforts to reach people who haven't paid.

"We're looking for individuals to maintain compliance with traffic laws, but we're also asking them to maintain compliance with the surcharge," said Rebekah Hibbs, who oversees the responsibility program for the Public Safety Department.

Christine, who is 27 and received the tickets that landed her in the Driver Responsibility Program right after she graduated from college, said she wanted to get her license back and pay her fines but couldn't afford to.

At one point, police had issued 11 warrants for her arrest, and she owed thousands in fines and surcharges.
Paying in installments and having the opportunity to see the surcharges re-duced, Christine said, would make it more likely she could get her license back.

"I do not want to drive around illegally, and I do not want to have war-rants," she said.

If more people pay their fines, more money would be available for hospitals like Thomason with trauma-care centers that a portion of the surcharge fees funds.

Thomason spokeswoman Margaret Althoff-Olivas said hospital officials ap-plauded the effort to get more drivers to pay.

Last year, Thomason received about $1.14 million from the surcharge program.

Most trauma patients at Thomason are injured in car crashes, many of which were caused by drivers who ignored traffic laws, Althoff-Olivas said.

"Their care is very costly, and oftentimes, it is the taxpayer who winds up footing the bill," she said. "This fund is intended to help prevent that."

Sen. Shapleigh said still more should be done to prevent Texans from falling into debt and losing their right to drive because of traffic fines.

Next year, he plans to present a bill that would reduce the surcharges.

"What will help," he said, "is rational traffic tickets, not punitive fines."


How the Texas Driver Responsibility Program works:

Moving violations

Points are accumulated for convictions of moving violations such as speeding and running a red light. After six points, the DPS requires a driver to pay a $100 surcharge each year for three years.After a driver accumulates six points, each additional point will cost an ad-ditional $25 a year.Driving while intoxicated, or a DWI-related of-fenseFirst conviction: $1,000 annual surcharge.Second or subsequent conviction: $1,500 annual surcharge.DWI with blood alcohol content 0.16 or greater: $2,000 annual surcharge.Driving without insurance $250 annual surcharge.Driving while license $250invalid annual sur-charge.Driving without a valid license. $100 annual surcharge.

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