The tales told by Texas drivers are eerily similar. A traffic ticket for a relatively minor infraction leads to fines of hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. They can’t afford to pay or, worse, don’t even know they’ve been fined. They lose their licenses, lose their insurance, lose their jobs. Some even land in jail.
“I missed one payment for $80 dollars … and had my license suspended without my knowledge. I was then pulled over and now face even more surcharges and possible jail time.”
“This surcharge is ruining my credit and making it hard to pay all my bills.”
“My husband has lost his job due to this surcharge, and I am now the single supporter of a 4 person family in a very poor economy.”
“I owe 10,000, my unemployment is about to run out, I think I'm going to shoot myself.”
The stories scroll by one after another on an online petition to repeal a law called the Driver Responsibility Act. Nearly 4,000 angry and devastated drivers, who have either lost their licenses or in some way dealt with the exorbitant surcharges of the program, have lent their names to the effort — just a fraction of the more than 1.2 million Texas drivers who have lost their licenses because of unpaid surcharges.
Grissom reports that "Since 2003, trauma centers in Texas hospitals have gotten nearly $340 million from the surcharge funds." (Of course, when they passed the original bill, it was predicted to generate several times that amount.) But even that figure ignores hidden, countervailing costs. By making it impossible for more than a million drivers to get insurance, the program boosts the number of uninsured people entering emergency rooms from auto accidents, costing health providers up to $82 million per year in uncompensated care. And that doesn't even consider costs from filling up courts and jails with offenders whose main crime is an inability to pay too-high fees. On that score, reports Grissom:
Travis County Court at Law Judge Elisabeth Earle says the huge surcharges have generated a continuous line of defendants who come before her after getting arrested for driving with a suspended license. “They feel like there is this never-ending hole they have gotten into,” Earle says. In many cases, she says, a driver will get a ticket for driving without insurance. After paying the initial fine and court costs (already hundreds of dollars), he'll then find out that he also has to pay the state another $250 each year for three years. He can’t afford that fine, so his license gets suspended, but he continues driving. He gets pulled over, goes to jail and winds up in front of Earle. “His answer is to plead no contest and spend more time in jail,” she says, because he still can’t afford the fines. But the problem with pleading guilty is that now the person must pay even more surcharges for the new offense — and he still can’t get his license back. But he continues driving because he needs to go to work, to take his kids to school, to live. And now he's risking yet another arrest and more fines. “It is something that has gotten out of control,” Earle says. Instead of making Texas drivers safer, she says, on the whole the program has made driving more dangerous and more expensive, because unlicensed drivers can’t get insurance. When they get in a wreck and can’t pay, it drives up insurance costs for everyone else. “If it’s not working, we’ve got to fix it in a way that it can work,” she says.
Unfortunately, DPS has scaled back its proposed indigency rules so dramatically that it amounts to putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound. I'm hopeful the Public Safety Commission will add in amnesty and incentive programs to the mix before the rulemaking process is through.
Trauma centers are important, but funding them with a mechanism that makes more drivers uninsured amounts to cutting of their nose to spite their face, and the amounts being generated don't justify the unintended consequences and costs.