Monday, March 15, 2010

Texas Tribune tackles Driver Responsibility surcharge

Brandi Grissom at the Texas Tribune has a piece up this morning on proposed revisions to DPS rules surrounding the oxymoronically named "Driver Responsibility" surcharge. Here's how the article opens:

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.


Anonymous said...

“I owe 10,000, my unemployment is about to run out, I think I'm going to shoot myself.”

Shooting the wrong person! Go after the ones that did this to you and your family.

Anonymous said...

"Shooting the wrong person! Go after the ones that did this to you and your family."

Exactly... shoot yourself.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a third option, besides the tough approach and amnesty.

What I see the state doing is increasing the authority of the state to use garnishments. And of course, let's wait and see how the Dallas towing model works out, which is very promising. These options, combined with modest use of the jails, can help get the free loaders off the road.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:43, in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, advising those who can't pay their bills to shoot themselves is dumber than dumb.

Defendants are not notified they owe the surcharge when they clear up their criminal case, then months later they receive notice of a separate "civil" fee that costs more than many can afford and spreads out over three years. If the noncompliance rate were 5-10%, maybe you'd have a point about people blaming themselves. But since the noncompliance rate is 63%, it's just a failed government program that's the fault of the legislators who created it.

10:48, you think the Dallas towing model is working? That's really funny! Their rate of uninsured sure hasn't declined as a result, plus if you actually enforce it there are unintended consequences.

One in four Texas drivers have no insurance: You can't tow all their vehicles.

Don said...

Instead of a futile search for a way of fixing this disastrous, ill-conceived program, why not just push to repeal the idiotic law next session? The lege makes so many mistakes, looks like getting them to admit to just one wouldn't be too much of a stretch. Especially since they admitted that it was a money grab in the first place; nothing to do with safety or responsibility, everything to do with a budget crunch.

Old Cop said...

Repeal the damn was an unconstitutional TAX anyway.

Anonymous said...

"10:43, in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, advising those who can't pay their bills to shoot themselves is dumber than dumb."

I didn’t advocate anything, you’re the one bringing up this lovely idea of mass suicide by the criminal element. He got himself into his own mess, that’s just a fact.

Anonymous said...

Of Course, many of these poor, who are eligible for food stamps, can go on food stamps. Why not find out how many of these have gone on food stamps due to these fines? In Montana, it is estimated that 70,000 poor have applied for food stamps over the last 20 years due to DUI costs, traffic fines, and mandatory auto insurance. Go to

Another study was done by Dr Maril. He found that 44% said they could not buy food or pay rent due to mandatory auto insurance.

Texas' "starve 'em to death" law doesn't seem to be working. The mandatory auto insurance law doesn't seem to be working. Why not get more ministers in the legislature, or require the legislators to go to church, this is not "Blessed are the poor", more like "damned are the poor". Don Birkholz

Anonymous said...

wouldn't it be great if we could deny government services to those who owed surcharge fees? Kick their kids out of school. Deny them food stamps... that would be a sensible approach.

Attorney said...

Judge Earle's rendition of the never-ending downward spiral these folks find themselves in is spot on. The Driver Improvement Bureau is inefficient at best and maintains highly inaccurate records. While most of the employees are usually cordial, no one ever knows what's going on or who to turn to to find out. It's very frustrating when trying to get a straight answer regarding how to "clear up" one's license. Repeal, repeal, repeal!

Anonymous said...

I agree- REPEAL the program all together!

Don said...

"wouldn't it be great if we could deny government services to those who owed surcharge fees? Kick their kids out of school. Deny them food stamps... that would be a sensible approach."

It's tempting to call you an idiot, but that would be an insult to idiots.

PirateFriedman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"wouldn't it be great if we could deny government services to those who owed surcharge fees? Kick their kids out of school. Deny them food stamps... that would be a sensible approach"

LOL, harsh words from an aging substance abuse counselor. You probably worked for the government and have spent a lifetime living off other people's money.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 11:55am, sounds like you are talking about gov perry "...worked for the government and spent a lifetime living off other people's money". Or could you be referring to Phil Gramm?

Anonymous said...

My husband had his license suspended and now owes over $700. He is already chipping away each month at the $2000 accrued from a related ticket and now this? We are both working college students with a child and are, laughably, trying to make it through this hell-hole all in one piece. Attorney, can we fight this?

Shaun said...

I love the "freeloader" comments and things of that nature. Anyone who HASN'T dealt with this situation has no idea what it entails.

I made my mistakes. I admitted to them, and I paid for them. At a time when I was irresponsible and got these insurance tickets, I posed no excuse for my behavior.

That's not the point.

The system is set up to exploit anyone being subjected to it. They realize that getting these tickets and improperly communicating the extra fees to you, leads to more of the same fees and surcharges therefore more and more money goes to the program.

I agree with the steep fine for the insurance ticket itself. It's $260. That's where it should end. Double jeopardy is unconstitutional and to not understand that is ridiculous.

I dug an initial hole, but while trying to get out (paying the higher insurance rates, paying for the ticket, going to court), my arms were cut off, rendering it almost impossible to get back on top.

The punishment does NOT fit the crime. I got insurance tickets and it's costs me THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS over many years. Not to mention the hassle of having to deal with courts/inefficient exploitative systems along the way. (MSB, DPS, etc)

If I was to walk outside right now, and beat the crap out of the next person I saw unwarrantingly... the cost and effort would be less than that of this flawed "Driver Responsibility Program". Not to mention I could get it off my record easier and put it behind me quicker, especially given I have NO criminal record at all.

Is THAT fair?

Didn't think so.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Shaun and others with a story to tell: If you an come to the capitol April 26 to tell the PSC your story, it'd be good. Watch Grits for time and room #.

Anonymous said...

It wouldn't be quite so harsh if there were adequate notifications in the time period before you are cited for DWLS (driving while license suspended).