Other Voices

End Driver Responsibility Program’s fines

Fort Worth police arrest a man suspected of driving while intoxicated, which can draw high fine surcharges.
Fort Worth police arrest a man suspected of driving while intoxicated, which can draw high fine surcharges. Star-Telegram

In late January, the Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing regarding the future of the Driver Responsibility Program.

If you are unaware of the program, consider yourself lucky. Millions of other Texans know far too well the consequences it has brought the Lone Star State.

If the hearing was any indication, the Driver Responsibility Program could be seeing its last days.

The program was created in 2003 to help increase revenue, countering a $9.9 billion budget shortfall during that biennium. It penalizes drivers with surcharges for committing certain driving-related offenses.

There’s a point system for each type of offense. The points stay on your license for three years.

If you hit six points, you must pay $100 for every year they are on your record and an additional $25 for each additional point.

Higher-level traffic convictions carry steep penalties that must be paid for three years. A first-time DWI will cost an individual $3,000 over three years.

Failure to pay these fines results in the suspension of the person’s license.

Fines, attorney’s fees, car repairs, elevated insurance rates and court costs for even a minor traffic violation can add up to thousands in the blink of an eye.

The Senate Research Center says 1.2 million Texans have lost their licenses due to the program, leaving people with the choice of driving on a suspended license or losing the means to get to their job to support themselves and their family.

Impoverishment and debt due to fines and fees can spin around those most vulnerable in our society faster than they can escape.

It’s an almost unanimous view that the Driver Responsibility Program should either be revoked or greatly reformed to allow for individuals to maintain their licenses, especially if they are faced with financial hardships.

Only one major hurdle stands in the way of getting rid of it.

A portion of the revenue from the program goes to fund trauma hospitals’ uncompensated care costs.

In fiscal year 2015, that was a little over $54 million, or 17 percent of total trauma care costs throughout the state.

Driver Responsibility Program surcharges aren’t the only revenue for trama care. Three court costs and fines that are gathered at the state and local level provided $30 million to funds dedicated for trauma facilities and care.

By statute, only a fraction of the money from those three court fines and costs actually goes to fund the trauma hospitals. If a larger portion were dedicated to the trauma hospitals, the Driver Responsibility Progam could be phased out with little-to-no revenue loss to the hospitals.

Driving safety, a named benefit to the program in its inception, has not improved.

Drivers charged with driving while intoxicated are hit hardest by the surcharges, but since 2003, DUI-related driving crashes resulting in a fatality actually have increased by 4.28 percent.

With minor tweaks to current judicial court fines and costs, the Driver Responsibility Program can be a thing of the past, while not disturbing trauma care funding streams.

Greg Glod is a policy analyst for Right on Crime and the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin.