News Room

Some traffic fines to lessen State hopes incen-tives are just the ticket to motivate violators who haven't paid
February 9, 2008

Texas is giving a second chance to 860,000 of its drivers who have refused to pay mandatory annual surcharges on their traffic violations – forcing them to drive illegally and leaving the state treasury in the hole for nearly $700 million.

Written by Terrence Stutz, The Dallas Morning News


AUSTIN – Texas is giving a second chance to 860,000 of its drivers who have refused to pay mandatory annual surcharges on their traffic violations – forcing them to drive illegally and leaving the state treasury in the hole for nearly $700 million.

Proposed rules expected to be adopted Tuesday by the Texas Department of Public Safety Commission would set up an amnesty and incentive plan to encourage drivers to pay up. The plan would offer reductions of 10 to 25 percent to those who have a clean record and pay on time. Drivers also would be able to stretch out their payments – which can amount to thousands of dollars – under new installment options.

The fines are collected under the Texas Driver Responsibility Program, approved by the Legislature and implemented by DPS in September 2004.

The original idea was to levy hefty fines for certain violations to discourage those types of offenses and at the same time raise money for pressing needs such as trauma care. But the program hasn't worked out as planned.

Figures compiled by the Texas Department of Public Safety and provided to The Dallas Morning News indicated that the state has collected just a third of the surcharge penalties assessed against drivers for offenses including driving while intoxicated, failure to have insurance and driving without a valid license.

DWI offenses carry the biggest surcharges – $1,000 a year for three years on the first conviction and $1,500 a year for a second conviction. Any DWI conviction where the blood alcohol content is twice the legal limit draws a $2,000-a-year surcharge.

"Many people have let these payments pile up. This [incentive] proposal will give them a chance to get back on the right side of the law," said Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, who co-sponsored the legislation last year that gave the DPS leeway to take steps to get better compliance with the driver responsibility law.

Mr. Driver said he knew one driver who was paying the fines for a violation but had to quit making payments after he lost his job.

"In a perfect world, this program made sense, making people pay extra fines for breaking the law. But when you have some who are struggling to just to keep up with basic living expenses, you have to consider extenuating circumstances," he said.

Mr. Driver, an insurance agent, remains a strong supporter of the program despite its problems.

"These are not just speeding tickets," he said. "These offenses represent a serious violation of the law, and when you break the law you should have to face serious consequences."

And while he hopes the amnesty and incentive plan will encourage more drivers to pay what they owe, he added, "If we have to look at it again in the future, we will. But I don't think we'll ever get to the point where we can tell any of these drivers to forget about paying the surcharges."


Trauma center funds


Revenue from the surcharges is supposed to go into the state trauma centers fund as well as the general revenue fund. So the nonpayment of fines means that revenue from other sources has to be used to pay for trauma care. Much of that money comes from taxpayers in the communities where trauma centers are located.

Several lawmakers have questioned whether the financial penalties under the program are so high that they are counterproductive and provide an incentive for people not to pay.

But the Legislature took no action to lower the surcharges last year, hoping that DPS could devise ways to boost payments, using their new authority under the law.

Besides allowing the department to use collection agencies – which could be paid up to 30 percent of what they collect – and such carrots as installment payments and partial amnesty programs, DPS officials also can consider increased consequences for nonpayment. But so far, the latter option has not been exercised.

Rebekah Hibbs of DPS, administrator of the program, said all affected drivers – including those who have not been making payments – will be notified of their new options, and the expectation is that many of them will want to start or resume payments.

For those paying on a DWI conviction or for driving with a suspended license, the surcharge would be reduced 10 percent in the second year and 20 percent in the third year if there are no additional convictions for drunken driving or driving with a suspended license. With a surcharge of $1,000 a year for three years on a DWI conviction, the savings would be $100 the first year and $200 the second year.

"This would give them two incentives to participate," Ms. Hibbs said. "First, they would be in compliance with the law, and second, they would have their surcharge reduced."

The use of installment plans – paying surcharges once a month – also is expected to increase the number of drivers paying their surcharges. DPS would be authorized to adjust due dates to accommodate drivers.


Safety is goal


Ms. Hibbs said the overall goal of the changes is the same as the original program – to enhance traffic safety in Texas.

Once the DPS board approves the amnesty and incentive plan, the agency will move to implement it over the next several months.

The analysis from DPS – covering the period from Sept. 1, 2004, through Jan. 31, 2008 – showed that the lowest rate of compliance is by drivers who have been cited for not having a valid license. Just 24 percent have paid their surcharges of $250 a year for three years.

At the next lowest level of compliance – 34 percent – are drivers who have been convicted of DWI. Among those ticketed for not having insurance, 35 percent have paid their surcharges. Statistics from DPS and the insurance industry have indicated that as many as 25 percent of motorists in Texas are ignoring a state law that requires them to carry minimum liability insurance.

The highest rate of payment was by those who have accrued at least six points in a three-year period under the state's point system for traffic offenses. For example, a moving violation costs a driver two points. Nearly 66 percent of those drivers have paid surcharges to the state.


A look at Texas' Driver Responsibility Program:

How it works: Motorists who violate certain traffic laws are assessed additional fines or surcharges. For some violations, there is a point system; for other, more serious violations – DWI, driving with no or an invalid license, driving with no insurance – there are automatic annual surcharges for three years.

Compliance rates:

• 34 percent among drivers assessed surcharges for driving while intoxicated.

• 35 percent among drivers owing surcharges because of no-insurance violations.

• 24 percent among drivers assessed surcharges because of no-driver's license violations.

Incentives: To increase those compliance rates, the state is considering:

• Reducing surcharge payments in some cases. An example: The surcharge for not having minimum insurance ($250 a year for three years) could be reduced by 25 percent if the driver provides proof of insurance when each payment is made. That would be $62.50 a year, or $187.50 over three years.

• Allowing installment payments for some of the surcharges, with monthly payments the most likely option that will be used.

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