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Once again with the Driver Responsibility Program

The Trib takes a look at Texas’ Driver Responsibility Program and the grassroots effort to repeal it.

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.

Texas legislators approved the Driver Responsibility Act in 2003 to encourage safer driving and raise money for Texas roads and hospital trauma centers. The program attaches hefty state surcharges to traffic citations like speeding, driving without insurance, driving without a license and driving while intoxicated. In addition to paying the fines and court costs associated with the ticket, drivers must pay an annual surcharge ranging from $100 to $2,000 or their license is suspended.

Trouble is, the program isn’t generating the kind of revenue that lawmakers hoped. The Texas Department of Public Safety has sent Texas drivers bills worth nearly $1.8 billion since 2003. But most of that money — more than 60 percent — has gone uncollected. And more than 1.2 million drivers have lost their licenses because they didn’t or couldn’t pay up.

I am not opposed to the idea of this program, but it’s been a failure in every way since it was adopted in 2003. It was intended as a new source of revenue for the state during our last budget crisis, but it has taken in far less than projected. It was intended to enhance public safety and encourage compliance with the law, but as Grits noted it has done neither, mostly because it has caused so many people to lose their licenses. It’s possible that some aspect of this legislation could be saved and rehabbed into something useful, but it’s hard to argue with the assertions that it should just be scrapped. At the very least, we need for the indigency program to take effect. This thing is broken; why are we still using it?

Well, let’s not forget that the main point of this was a source of revenue, and in these tough budget times, no one wants to do away with a source of revenue that doesn’t have a powerful constituency agitating about it.

Tamara Shippy, a 25-year-old Houston-area college student, started the online petition effort in 2007 after both she and her fiancé lost their driver’s licenses. “This is nothing more than a revenue-generating program,” she says. “That just is really appalling to me.” Even as DPS is trying to change the program to make it easier for some to pay, the chorus of voices calling for its abolition continues to grow.

As I observed back in 2007, you usually hear that kind of talk in the context of red light cameras. And as I also observed back then, some of the folks who yap the loudest about what a nasty, greedy revenue grab red light cameras are have been completely silent about the Driver Responsibility Program. I’ll leave it to you to decide why that might be.

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12 Comments

  1. kevin whited says:

    ** some of the folks who yap the loudest about what a nasty, greedy revenue grab red light cameras are have been completely silent about the Driver Responsibility Program. **

    Charles, et al: We typically try to restrict our commentary to items directly related to Houston-area politics and media on the cityblog, whereas this issue is a statewide matter. Further, we don’t try to comment on or blockquote EVERY area story of that type — there’s just not enough time in the day. I hope that clears up any ongoing confusion.

    Substantively, though, it is true that intrusive government programs — revenue grabs or otherwise — frequently have unintended consequences. Whether or not it appears on a cityblog, I *am* ecstatic when I see members of the Reality Based Community come around to that view, whatever party happens to be the majority at any given time in whatever government body is being discussed. That’s Progress I can believe in — good job! 🙂

  2. Greg Wythe says:

    It amuses me to no end seeing a grammar nazi refer to himself as a plural. 😉

  3. Always a pleasure to hear from you, Kevin. I know hyperlocality is where it’s at and all, but I find it useful from time to time to peer past the walls of one’s gated community to see if any of the things one talks about in one’s hyperlocal locality are happening elsewhere as well. You know, to try and understand how the world around my little hyperlocal island works. But to each his own.

  4. John says:

    Perhaps “we” refers to the Greek chorus one usually hears repeating key points.

  5. Appetitus Rationi Pareat says:

    First, if the state needs more money for transportation, why not raise the tax on gasoline? If I remember correctly, it hasn’t been raised since the 1990’s. No wonder our roads are falling apart and we lack a decent transit system.

    Second, I fully support any mechanism, be it this fine system, red light cameras or speed cameras, that tries to get people in this city (and state) to drive better. I have lived in several places and Houston has some of the worst drivers I have ever experienced. I believe the biggest problem here is that most people have to basically drive everywhere, for everything. Most people can’t get a gallon of milk without having to jump in their car. This makes people complacent about driving. They speed, talk on the phone, put on make up, eat, etc. while barreling down the road in two ton truck.

    Driving is a privilege, not a right. If you’re not responsible enough to pay attention when you are driving, you should lose that right.

  6. John says:

    I would rather collect lots of money from people too stupid and careless to obey traffic laws that have my property taxes raised. Personally, I’d like to see fines for all repeat offenses raised to a minimum of a thousand dollars, escalating to a much higher sum before quickly resulting in license suspensions of a mimimum of a year (& hefty fines and lifelong suspension if you drive anyway), all with traffic laws aggressively enforced.

    The people doing these things are endangering the safety of the people around them. I’m fine with the punishment including a painful contribution to the community they are putting at risk.

  7. ARP and John – Again, I don’t oppose the idea of this fee. But it’s failed in every aspect for which which is was intended, and in doing so has had a disproportionate effect on many people. One way or another, that needs to be addressed.

  8. Don Birkholz says:

    Doesn’t anybody bother to add in the costs to the food stamp program, when these low incomes get stressed financially, many go on food stamps. A food stamp survey that I had done, thru the Montana DPHHS, showed that in the last 20 years, 70,000 Montanans would have listed fines, DUI costs, and mandatory auto insurance as a reason for needing food stamps. Why doesn’t anybody care to mention this? Go to http://www.foodstampstudy.com

  9. Jennifer H. says:

    I want to agree with this policy, because as a Emergency room nurse who do take care of the people that are innocent bystanders of trauma. Those people who think they havent had too much to drink and are able to drive. i dont think the laws are harsh enough for them. Many of families have lost loved ones, elderly and children. Us as emergency room nurses must be there when families are told their loved ones are not coming back. How many other individuals are injured from losing control of motor vehicles from speeding? more than is published. If you are irresponsible to keep getting these fines than you dont need to have your licsense. HARSH! Yes, we are dealing with from millions of dollars spent on saving lives that are not repaid to the hospitals and ems. The multidisciplinary teams that work together to save these lives go unappreciated. From the DPS office, Police Department, Sheriff office to EMS that go further to Emergency Room staff. These are individuals who put their lives on the line on a regular basis. Trauma patients do not come in calm and not aggitated. They come in scared and fighting.

    These fines that are given are to help take some of the financial stress off of those who come in to the hospital. We treat these patients whether they are self pay or have insurance. Our main goal is to promote safety for everyone. Those who dont have the money to pay the fines need to realize the REAL reason it is for. Cant pay? Quit smoking, drinking, using cell phones and getting nails done for a couple months. Then they might have enough to pay some of these fines.

  10. paul reeves says:

    This program is designed to get poor people out of their cars, and off the road.

  11. Misha Lanawy says:

    OOOOO Jennifer, did you EVER put your foot in your mouth!
    “Cant pay? Quit smoking, drinking, using cell phones and getting nails done for a couple months. Then they might have enough to pay some of these fines.”

    You know what, you (and many others) are the reason that laws like this are in effect in the first place. First of all, how do you know that anyone who cannot pay smoke, drink, get their “nails” done (that one was ridiculous), etc. So, poor people don’t have the right to use a cell phone, is that what you’re saying? The trauma unit in the hospital could fair just fine if a few doctors and NURSES took a pay cut. That is what every other organization does in America when their company is in a jam. Cut some salaries. Since you all “do so much to save lives and care for people”, try doing it pro-bono. Since it’s all about “helping people”. My, my, my you sound like a breathing contradiction. Why is it that doctors and nurses complain so much about pay when they make the higher end salaries in the country (besides entertainers, sorry jen…they’re just better…lol)? Why are they always whining about how much they give, but knew the situation when they stepped into the profession and, truth be told, the money is the reason they stepped into the profession in the first place (the majority of the time). And for them to whine so much about pay, I don’t see anyway “homeless doctors” or “nurses receiving indigent care”. Get off it!
    And while we are on the subject of salaries, let’s discuss some of the big wig political figures in Texas who support and put this program into motion. Do you know that if the higher end politicians gave 10% of their salary to hospital care that would be at least $1 million a year. AT THE VERY LEAST! That may not solve all problems but it would certainly help. But no, instead, egostical smart dummies inact such laws that require payment from people who barely have enough to feed their families at the end of the day. Call it what you want but in plain English it is always going to translate into Lawful Robbery! Most Americans, at some point or another, have traffic violations. (Give credit to a bad day or something…whatever) It is insane to add an additional tax onto a mistake. How about this Jennifer? How about we tax the murderers, rapists, drug dealers, etc. that they release EVERY year?!!! How about taxing someone who KNOWINGLY and DELIBERATELY woke up in the morning and premeditated harm to another human being. Wow! I was taken aback by the comments you made about people getting their nails done and drinking and smoking. To have you be a nurse who is committed to the care of people and harbor such stereotypical, harsh and meaningless emotions is scary. But you are a nurse. Do you deserve to have your license stripped for judging your patients? Because whether you like it or not, those people who come into the hospital and can’t pay…..those people who need assistance paying their bill at the hospital….are the SAME PEOPLE who are in debt with the surcharge. Good luck getting a bill paid now sis!

  12. Shawn says:

    Wow John,,I did not know that my expired license was so “endangering to the safety of the people around me”………..I have had no wrecks or tickets in thirty years…

    $300.00 to the state, is a bit much for this offence(on top of the already paid city fine),,wouldnt you agree?

    I say the money should come from people who CAUSE the traumas in the E.R.”s,,not ordinary citizens..