Texas Politics

Should Texas kill the controversial driver responsibility program?

The Texas Capitol
The Texas Capitol Star-Telegram

Some Texas lawmakers say it’s time to throw out the state program created more than a decade ago to make Texans better drivers and use the fines they pay to help trauma centers across the state.

State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said the Driver Responsibility Act — created in 2003 to generate more funding for the state in the face of a budget shortfall — is creating serious financial hardships for some Texans.

Already, 1.2 million Texas drivers have been forced off the roads after losing their licenses, or are driving illegally, because they can’t pay multi-year surcharges and related fees.

“We all know the system is inefficient and counterproductive,” Hall told the Senate Transportation Committee in Austin Wednesday. “We have failed to end it because it is a funding source for trauma care. Doing the wrong thing even for the right reasons is still wrong.

“There is never a right reason to do the wrong thing,” he said. “Let’s end this program and find a sustainable funding stream for trauma care.”

That might be easier said than done in an already tight budget year, especially when doctors and health officials called on lawmakers to keep the program to ensure trauma funding continues in Texas.

“While there are problems with the program, … eliminating the program without replacing funding would be irresponsible,” testified Raj Gandhi, a trauma surgeon at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth and acting vice chair of the Austin-based Texas EMS Trauma & Acute Care Foundation.

He said around dozens of hospitals have been designated as trauma centers since this driver responsibility act began, which has saved countless lives.

“Maintaining designated trauma facilities is an expensive endeavor,” he said. “We take care of everyone, … without regard to ability to pay for their care.

“Elimination of this funding would jeopardize” trauma care,” Gandhi said. “You all should be proud of the system you helped to build.”

Points, surcharges

The program was created, some say, to make Texans better drivers.

Through this law, the state assigns points to Class C traffic violations and adds surcharges once a driver accumulates six or more points in a three-year period. Points stay on a driver’s record for three years.

A regular moving violation, for instance, adds two points to a driver’s record. A traffic violation that leads to an accident adds three points, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Normally drivers pay a $100 surcharge for the first six points and another $25 for each point above that. The surcharge is due every year the driver has six or more points.

Some surcharges are costly — $1,000 for a first conviction of driving while intoxicated; $2,000 for driving while intoxicated if a person’s blood alcohol level is 0.16 or more; and $250 for driving without a valid license, DPS records show.

“It’s a form of debtors prison,” said Terri Hall, of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. “That’s unconstitutional.”

Drivers are notified by mail about the surcharge and they have 30 days to pay or have their license suspended.

Hall — whose proposed Senate Bill 90 would completely repeal the program — said only four other states have similar programs. Two of them, Virginia and Michigan, are on the way to overturning or phasing out theirs, he said.

“We now stand alone with New Jersey and New York,” he said. “What a pair to stand with.”

‘It is wrong’

Williamson County Justice of the Peace Edna Staudt asked lawmakers to end the driver responsibility program she has seen “emotionally devastate” some Texans.

The surcharges and loss of a license has made it hard for some people to hold down jobs, without their own transportation, and has cost many their livelihood and even their families, she said.

“The state of Texas is being very punitive to people,” she said. “It is wrong to take people’s driver license just because they’re not paying a tax.

“Please look at the people that are being affected by this,” she said. “We should stop the program, get the money from somewhere else … [and] get justice back in our state.”

By statute, the surcharge funds are divided equally between the trauma fund and general revenue, although the DPS keeps 1 percent to administer the program.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, also has a proposal, SB 266, to cut in half the program’s surcharges for various traffic violation. His plan would send 99 percent of the revenue to the state’s trauma fund and 1 percent to DPS.

Trauma needs

This program is needed to help injured Texans statewide who head to trauma centers, said Christopher Ziebell, an emergency medicine physician who testified on behalf of the Texas Medical Association.

Overall, it has provided around one-third of the money needed for these services, he said.

Ziebell was asked during Wednesday’s hearing if the money helping trauma services is more important than destroying the lives of some Texans.

“I see the consequences of indigents,” he said. “I’m not myself feeling comfortable arguing that destroying people’s livelihoods is the right thing for the state.” But “repealing it without finding a way to replace the trauma funds is going to harm a lot more people.”

Gandhi, of JPS, also stressed the importance of trauma services, noting that an injured patient can bleed to death in three minutes.

Other health officials indicated they would support the repeal of the program if there was another funding source for trauma care.

“Either commit to general revenue moving forward or an alternative fine or fee” structure, said John Hawkins, senior vice president of government relations for the Texas Hospital Association. “If the greater goal is to reform the system, then folks ought to come together and look at this as a revenue swap.”

Waive surcharges?

Another related bill — Senate Bill 599 by state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville — calls for deferring, reducing or waiving certain DWI surcharges if offenders participate in a drug court program.

Local statistics show there has been a significant drop in probation cases since the program went into effect, said Leighton Iles, director of the community supervision and corrections department in Tarrant County.

Burton’s bill, he said, would save the state money, noting that supervision for someone in this program costs $3 a day, compared with the cost of more than $50 a day for someone who is incarcerated.

“The bill will provide a judge an additional incentive for individuals to take the program and provide an incentive for them to complete the program,” Iles said.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley