September 04, 2007
Is it a surcharge if no one pays it?

I've blogged before about the "Texas Driver Responsibility Act of 2003", which added large surcharges to various traffic offenses. Turns out, quite a few people aren't paying them, even though they risk arrest for not doing so.

Passed in 2003, the Texas Driver Responsibility Law adds fees ranging from $100 to more than $2,000 for drivers who have repeat traffic violations, drive drunk or are caught without insurance or a license.

Drivers who don't pay the surcharges lose their licenses -- until they settle up.

But that doesn't seem to be slowing down hundreds of thousands of Texas motorists. Nearly 775,000 are not paying the surcharges, according to the Department of Public Safety.

A driver whose license has been suspended for not paying surcharges could be arrested if caught driving.


A new law that took effect Saturday is supposed to make it easier for drivers to pay their surcharges and allows DPS to offer periodic amnesty programs under Senate Bill 1723. Officials declined to speculate on what the program would look like.

"Anytime that you make a major change in behavior, you have to come back and tweak," House Law Enforcement Committee Chairman Joe Driver, R-Garland, said.

But state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, a passionate critic of the driver surcharge program, is skeptical that changes will fix a system he considers to be terribly broken.

"We are working against ourselves. Courts are clogged, police are drawn into this and away from violent crime, and judges complain," he said. "We need to use laws to alter behavior, not to re-create debtor prisons."

Texas outlawed the practice of jailing people for not paying debts in the infancy of the republic in 1836, he noted.

"People with arrest warrants, even for traffic tickets, can't get a job, so problems compound because they lack income to pay their charges," Shapleigh said.

Lawmakers created the program to generate revenue for trauma care when they faced a $10 billion budget shortfall in 2003. Money from the surcharges is divided evenly between hospital trauma care and state highways, and DPS gets 1 percent to administer the program.

As of Aug. 17, DPS had billed $886 million but received only $288 million -- a collection rate of less than 33 percent. Once drivers accumulate enough points or are convicted of more serious offenses, DPS sends them a letter and a bill for the surcharge.

There's nothing wrong with the idea of adding extra penalties for repeat violaters, or people who fail to comply with the terms of their original sentence. But it seems to me there are several problems with the approach the Lege took in 2003. For one thing, as we well know, there's a real shortage of jail space all over the state. Having to devote such scarce resources to housing people who didn't pay their traffic tickets only exacerbates that, and compels county commissioners courts to float jail bonds. A lot of the people who have warrants out for their arrest under this law have no idea of the trouble they're in. Most perniciously, using these kinds of fees as a means to fund budget items just incentivizes perpetual fee increases. Yet with such a lousy collection rate, which seems likely to get worse if the fees ever do go up, this is an unreliable revenue source for whatever destination for which it's intended. All in all, this is a solution to a problem that causes fairly significant problems elsewhere.

Tamara Shippy of Friends- wood got so upset over assorted surcharges that she created an online petition last month in hopes that other angry Texans will speak out.

"It's unreasonable," the junior college student said. "It's unfair. It's just mind-boggling. It seems too cruel to actually exist."

Shippy got swooped up by the surcharge system after police ticketed her for an expired license, which socked her with an additional $100 for three years.

Shippy said she would not have driven her car had she known that her license expired.

More than 200 people have signed her petition in the first two weeks online at

Grits blogged about this last week. I had it on my to-be-linked-to list but didn't get to it before the weekend. This seemed like as good a time as any to get around to it, so here it is.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 04, 2007 to Crime and Punishment