Other Voices

End this debtors’ prison for Texas drivers

Fort Worth police arrest a man suspected of driving while intoxicated, which carries a $1,000-per-year fine surcharge.
Fort Worth police arrest a man suspected of driving while intoxicated, which carries a $1,000-per-year fine surcharge. Star-Telegram

Every day, nearly 1,800 Texans are entered into a registry with the sole intention of collecting money — highway robbery by your state government.

After more than a decade, we can no longer sit idly by while the state’s Driver Responsibility Program ruins lives and ensnares Texans in a debtors’ prison. It’s time to end the DRP.

Established by 11 pages of legalese, the DRP works by assessing point-based surcharges to drivers convicted of moving violations.

Once a driver accumulates six points, that person is assessed an annual surcharge of $100 plus an additional $25 for every point over six.

Texans who are unable to pay surcharges at the time they’re due has their license suspended.

Some convictions, like failure to provide proof of insurance, forgo the point system and immediately assess a surcharge regardless of whether the person’s vehicle was insured at the time.

If this person misses a payment on any of the $750 in surcharge dues, their license will be suspended. Now, the next traffic stop will be exponentially more costly, opening the door to court fees and outright loss of insurance.

If it sounds confusing, it is.

These surcharges are simply punitive costs stacked on top of traffic ticket fees.

For an indigent or working-class Texan, a fine alone can be devastating.

The DRP piles on a greater financial burden and longer-lasting harm, trapping hundreds of thousands of Texans in a cycle of inescapable debt

As many as 1 million Texans have had their licenses suspended because they could not afford the crippling weight of these surcharges.

Now, they are faced with a troubling ultimatum: drive to work and risk another surcharge for driving with an invalid license, or observe the law, forfeit their means of transportation and ultimately lose their job.

The program was instituted in 2003, and at the time it was thought to be a clever way of generating revenue.

Half of all the annual DRP revenue, about $79 million, is used to ease the burden of uncompensated care shouldered by Texas’ trauma centers.

The revenue varies greatly year to year and is an unstable crutch to trauma care funding.

Contrary to the program’s stated purpose, Texas has seen an increase of 1.3 million drivers with invalid licenses, as much as a 5 percent rise in alcohol-related fatalities on Texas roads, and a surcharge collection rate of less than 50 percent.

The DRP is a case study in how the best intentions of central government planners can have very bad implications for working Texans.

The time to tweak the program has passed, and now it must be abolished, leaving the state to address trauma care funding in other ways.

Trauma care centers would be better served by a different funding stream that doesn’t overly burden Texans or ruin lives.

This program is devastating to those Texans who have the least; they owe $1.9 billion to the state in unpaid fines.

Not only does the program fail to deliver on public safety, but it traps Texans in poverty.

The DRP is truly a debtors’ prison, which is why we will fight to repeal this badly broken program.

State Sen. Don Huffines represents Dallas County’s District 16. Bill Hammond is CEO of the Texas Association of Business.