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Hefty surcharges for Texas drivers with violations remain mostly uncollected
February 1, 2010

AUSTIN – Texas motorists charged with certain driving violations owe the state more than $1 billion in surcharges, and many of the 1.2 million people on the unpaid list are driving without valid licenses and at risk of arrest.

Written by Terrence Stutz, Dallas Morning News


AUSTIN – Texas motorists charged with certain driving violations owe the state more than $1 billion in surcharges, and many of the 1.2 million people on the unpaid list are driving without valid licenses and at risk of arrest.

The Texas Driver Responsibility Program was designed to assess large additional fines – into the thousands of dollars apiece – to discourage certain offenses, such as drunken driving, and generate money for trauma care and highway construction.

And while the Legislature may give some relief to lower-income drivers in two years, a leading critic said the program remains a modern-day "debtors prison" for a large number of Texans. An estimated one in nine arrest warrants in Austin, El Paso and other cities are being issued because of the surcharge program.

"It's a complete failure," said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, who sponsored unsuccessful legislation to kill the program last year. Shapleigh was able to insert language into a related bill that would waive surcharges for indigent Texans, but it won't be effective until the fall of 2011, and then only if it has no significant impact on the state budget.

"What's happening is that people can't pay their fines, and then they lose their driver's license. That means they can't get to work," he said. "It has a snowball effect that's hurting a large number of citizens."

Gov. Rick Perry, who signed the surcharge legislation into law, remains a backer of the program despite its troubles. In signing the measure in 2003, he cited projections indicating it would raise $1 billion for trauma care centers by 2008.

"The governor continues to support this program, but he expects the Public Safety Commission to continue looking for ways to improve it," said Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Perry.

But the program never worked as planned. More than 60 percent of the surcharges – $1.05 billion – has not been paid. Of the 1.9 million Texas drivers who have been told to pay, about 1.2 million have not, nearly two-thirds of those in the Driver Responsibility Program. If drivers don't pay, their licenses are automatically suspended 30 days after their initial conviction.

Where fines have gone

The state has collected more than $672 million, but none of it has gone to highways. And just a fraction has gone to trauma centers, said Shapleigh, who noted that the original push for the program came during the state's budget crunch in 2003, when lawmakers were scrambling for new revenue sources. The money is sitting in the state Treasury. The law that created the program required that collections pass a certain threshold before money is allocated.

Drunken-driving offenses carry the biggest surcharges – $1,000 a year for three years on the first conviction and $2,000 a year when the driver's blood-alcohol level is twice the legal limit. Driving with an invalid license or without insurance draws a $250-a-year surcharge for three years.

Critics of the program said many of those affected by the surcharges are first-time offenders, students, single parents and low-income residents faced with the choice of either complying with the law or paying for necessities such as food, rent, car repairs and medical bills.

The financial penalties are so high that they are counterproductive and provide an incentive for people not to pay, the critics contend. And the surcharges come as a surprise; there's been little effort by the state to inform the public that the program exists. Police typically don't mention them upon issuing a ticket, and drivers are notified, often months later, in a letter from the state.

An analysis from Texas Department of Public Safety – covering the period from fall 2004 to fall 2008 – showed that the lowest rate of compliance was by drivers cited for not having a valid license. Just 29 percent paid their full surcharges.

At the next-lowest level of compliance – 39 percent – were drivers convicted of driving while intoxicated. Among those ticketed for not having insurance, 40 percent paid their surcharges.

Statistics from the Texas Department of Insurance indicate that about 22 percent of all motor vehicles statewide – and 26 percent in Dallas County – lack minimum liability insurance coverage and are subject to surcharges if they get caught.

The highest rate of payment was by those who accrued at least six points in a three-year period under the state's point system for various traffic offenses. For example, a moving violation costs a driver two points. Nearly 70 percent of those drivers paid surcharges to the state.

A variety of state efforts – including hiring a collection agency and allowing installment payments – has only marginally improved compliance. Some lawmakers have concluded that a majority of drivers slapped with a surcharge will never pay.

"When they created the program, it was an easy sell to say we could get more money from bad behavior [of drivers] by hitting people with super-crazy fines," Shapleigh said. But that rationale didn't consider that many lower-income drivers had a hard time paying their regular fines, let alone surcharges that doubled or triple those fines, he added.

A college student from Waco wrote Shapleigh's office this month that he was ticketed in September 2008 for driving without insurance. He had to pay a fine of $260 to clear the ticket and thought that was the end of it.

"About nine months later, with no warning, I received a letter stating that my driver's license was no longer valid," wrote the student, Joseph Busch. "Please keep in mind that this was and to this day is the only traffic violation I have ever received.

"With my funds tied up in the cost of living and the cost of college, there is no possible way for me to even make a payment," he wrote.

Texas drivers can even be hit with surcharges for traffic violations in other states, although lack of insurance or a valid driver's license in another state is not subject to the program.

A few other states have similar programs and have experienced similar problems collecting the fines and surcharges. Virginia recently abandoned its program because of the large number of drivers not paying.

Help for poor violators

Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said the Public Safety Commission, which oversees the department, is considering options that would ease the burden on indigent drivers in line with what the Legislature proposed.

He also said the agency has taken other steps to improve compliance, including mailing notices to affected drivers to inform them of what they owe and why. Critics have faulted the Legislature for failing to provide money for a public awareness campaign.

The Public Safety Commission at one time was considering a partial amnesty and incentive plan to boost payments, but that effort has been dropped.

Mary Moody, an Austin resident who was required to pay a surcharge for no insurance, said she was not notified about the surcharge for three or four years after she paid her original fine for the insurance violation.

"My experience was not unique," said Moody, who has been involved in campaign to get the program repealed. "I've heard of many people who were arrested because they didn't pay the surcharge, even though they didn't know they owed a surcharge. Many others are unknowingly driving with a suspended license because they haven't paid."

Pointing to the lack of compliance by about two-thirds of the drivers who owe surcharges, Moody said it is hard to see why a program that criminalizes so many Texans would be allowed to continue.

"Nobody wants to admit they made a huge mistake with this," she said.


How the driver responsibility surcharges work:


Drivers convicted of certain violations are required to pay automatic annual surcharges for three years from the date of conviction. They are:

•Driving while intoxicated: $1,000 a year for three years for the first conviction; $1,500 a year for the second; $2,000 a year for any conviction with a blood-alcohol content of 0.16 or greater.

•Failure to maintain financial responsibility (insurance): $250

•Driving while license is invalid: $250

•Driving without a license: $100


Drivers accumulate points for moving-violation convictions (convictions on the charges listed above do not accrue points), and if a driver acquires six points or more in three years, he or she must pay $100 for the first six and $25 for each point above that. A schedule of surcharges:

•Two points for a moving violation in Texas or another state. (Points are not assigned for speeding less than 10 percent over the posted limit or for seat belt violations.)

•Three points for a moving violation in Texas that results in a crash.

•Two points for a child safety seat violation.


If a driver does not pay within 30 days of conviction, his or her license is revoked.

SOURCE: Department of Public Safety

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