"We need to use laws to alter behavior, not to re-create debtor prisons."
Seven of 10 motorists cited for traffic violations haven't paid annual fees
Sept. 3, 2007
By GARY SCHARRER
Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — A Texas law intended to slap problem motorists with hefty annual surcharges is being ignored by seven out of every 10 of them.
Passed in 2003, the Texas Driver Responsibility Law adds fees ranging from $100 to more than $2,000 for drivers who have repeat traffic violations, drive drunk or are caught without insurance or a license.
Drivers who don't pay the surcharges lose their licenses — until they settle up.
But that doesn't seem to be slowing down hundreds of thousands of Texas motorists. Nearly 775,000 are not paying the surcharges, according to the Department of Public Safety.
A driver whose license has been suspended for not paying surcharges could be arrested if caught driving.
Alfredo Perez Jr. is one of those drivers caught in the web of surcharges and suspensions.
A graduate student at the University of Texas at El Paso in 2003, Perez said he couldn't afford insurance when police stopped him.
He paid $293 in fines and court costs for the ticket but now owes $780 in surcharges — plus $100 for reinstating his suspended license.
"I did not have the resources to settle this initially," Perez said. "Then I learned through the Texas Department of Public Safety Web site that I could enter an installment payment plan to pay the amount due, but going into an installment plan would add ... a 3 percent convenience fee per month for making payments with a credit card."
"Considering how much I needed to pay already, I was outraged that the DPS would further increase the amount due. I became discouraged from seriously attempting to pay this off," Perez said.
Charges aid trauma care
A new law that took effect Saturday is supposed to make it easier for drivers to pay their surcharges and allows DPS to offer periodic amnesty programs under Senate Bill 1723. Officials declined to speculate on what the program would look like.
"Anytime that you make a major change in behavior, you have to come back and tweak," House Law Enforcement Committee Chairman Joe Driver, R-Garland, said.
But state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, a passionate critic of the driver surcharge program, is skeptical that changes will fix a system he considers to be terribly broken.
Texas outlawed the practice of jailing people for not paying debts in the infancy of the republic in 1836, he noted.
"People with arrest warrants, even for traffic tickets, can't get a job, so problems compound because they lack income to pay their charges," Shapleigh said.
Lawmakers created the program to generate revenue for trauma care when they faced a $10 billion budget shortfall in 2003. Money from the surcharges is divided evenly between hospital trauma care and state highways, and DPS gets 1 percent to administer the program.
As of Aug. 17, DPS had billed $886 million but received only $288 million — a collection rate of less than 33 percent. Once drivers accumulate enough points or are convicted of more serious offenses, DPS sends them a letter and a bill for the surcharge.
Tamara Shippy of Friendswood got so upset over assorted surcharges that she created an online petition last month in hopes that other angry Texans will speak out.
"It's unreasonable," the junior college student said. "It's unfair. It's just mind-boggling. It seems too cruel to actually exist."
Shippy got swooped up by the surcharge system after police ticketed her for an expired license, which socked her with an additional $100 for three years.
Shippy said she would not have driven her car had she known that her license expired.
More than 200 people have signed her petition in the first two weeks online at www.petitiononline.com/TXDRP07/petition.html.
In the program's first three years in Harris County, 123,293 violators were charged extra fines. In Bexar County, 47,909 violators were charged. About two-thirds of the fines came from drivers who did not have insurance or had an invalid license.
Despite the acknowledged shortcomings of the system, legislators said they hear few complaints.
"They are probably not likely to call and complain for fear that we will figure out who they are, where they live and come get them," state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, said. "If I have a warrant out for my arrest, I'm probably not going to call some government official and complain about it."
Driver said he's willing to keep reviewing and improving the program. But he defends the concept of making bad drivers pay for bad habits.
"I can't see being a whole lot easier on people who are breaking the law — driving while drunk, driving without insurance or a license," Driver said.
The Texas Driver Responsibility Law is part of House Bill 3588 that legislators passed in the final hours of the 2003 session. It's the same bill that set up the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor and allowed private company toll roads.
The legislation created a point system for traffic offenses and surcharges beginning at $100 a year when a motorist has reached six points, such as three speeding tickets. Driving without liability insurance carries a $250 surcharge per year. The first DWI results in a $1,000 surcharge. All of the surcharges run for three years.
Simple traffic-related offenses could cost between $405 and $838 in routine court costs, fines and three years of surcharges, according to a Legislative Budget Board study.
Driving without insurance could cost $1,303 over three years. A DWI conviction with surcharges could cost up to $6,603.
Texas hospitals supported the program because those providing critical trauma care had reached the breaking point without adequate funding, said George Hernandez Jr., president and chief executive of University Health System in San Antonio.
In a letter to Gov. Rick Perry last month, Hernandez urged Perry to release $23 million collected from the driver surcharges but not yet distributed to trauma care centers.
The Legislative Budget Board recently approved the distribution.
"Governor Perry supports using funds derived from the Texas Driver Responsibility Program to reduce the burden of uncompensated care costs," spokeswoman Krista Moody said. "Falling in line with his truth-in-budgeting principles, these funds are being distributed for the purpose in which they were collected."
Perez, the UTEP student, calls the program absurd and unfair for low-income drivers.
"I doubt the well-doing driver of a luxury vehicle would ever need to be concerned about not having the means to pay for liability insurance, or not having the resources to pay the services of an attorney to keep an impeccable driving record," Perez said. "It is no surprise that the percentage of noncomplying individuals is so high. ... It is erroneously turning many good citizens into criminals."
The states of New York, Michigan and New Jersey have joined Texas in socking surcharges to motorists after the customary court costs and fines for certain traffic violations.
Surcharge notices mailed for:
• Accumulated points: 72,277
• Intoxication offenses: 337,018
• Not having insurance or proof of insurance: 1,602,427
• No drivers license: 719,422
Total revenue from surcharges:
• Revenue billed: $887.8 million
• Revenue collected: $288.5 million
• Unpaid surcharges: $599.3 million
Liability limits on the rise
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