Texas lawmakers are considering two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, that would eliminate the state's Driver Responsibility Program (DRP), which some lawmakers argue places a financial burden on poor families who can't afford to pay their traffic citations.
DRP adds compounding penalties to drivers as they are convicted for traffic violations. For example, a driver convicted of a traffic violation can get two points on his or her drivers license; three points if the violation results in a car crash.
Points stay on the driver's license for three years, and if a license accrues six points, the driver is assessed a $100 surcharge at the end of the year. That fine goes up $25 for every additional point above six.
There are additional surcharges for more serious violations. After a driver's first intoxicated driving conviction, the surcharge is $1,000. It increases for each subsequent conviction.
Driving with a suspended license or without insurance incurs $250 surcharges.
According to the Texas Tribune, drivers who haven't paid their tickets aren't able to register their vehicles. Police scanners also allow law enforcement officers to identify drivers with outstanding fines or fees. A failure to pay tickets leads to more fines, and often, accompanying surcharges. "Each time you get pulled over, you get a ticket," Emily Gerrick, a senior staff attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project, told the Texas Tribune. "It all piles up and piles up until they start to lose all hope."
Some lawmakers also argue the program puts "unreasonable financial burdens on drivers," who can lose their license until they pay off all their DRP fines.
In 2018, The Washington Post reported that "by far," the State of Texas suspends the most driver's licenses for failure to pay fines, and the Driver Responsibility Program accounts for the lion's share of that number.
The Texas Tribune reports that in November 2016, the Department of Public Safety reported more than 3 million Texas drivers had racked up $16.5 million in surcharges since the program began. At the time, about 1.4 million drivers, nearly 10 percent of the state's licensed drivers that year, were suspended for not paying surcharges, The Tribune reports.
For 15 years, the Texas Legislature has made various attempts to repeal the program. Attempts have failed because DRP helps the state pay for trauma care at Texas hospitals, some $300 million per biennium.
Those against repealing DRP raise concerns about how the loss of that revenue will impact the care of 130,000 people every year who need critical trauma services in the state.
Houston Senator Joan Huffman has proposed a bill that will end the DRP while covering nearly all of the loss in revenue to the state trauma fund.
Senate Bill 918, would repeal the program, remove existing points, and restore any licenses suspended solely due to non-payment. It would address the funding gap by creating additional one-time fines and fees for traffic offenses, rather than the compounding fine structure of the DRP.
The state base traffic violation fee would rise from $30 to $50 and it doubles the fee that insurers add to each individual auto policy, from $2 to $4. Fines for DWI convictions would also go up, from $1000 to $3000 for a first offense, up to $6000 for driving with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit.
Huffman says these new fines and fees will cover all but about $30 million of current DRP revenue. Huffman reportedly intends to hold her bill while the State House version, authored by Richmond Representative John Zerwas, makes its way to the Senate.
THE TEXAS TRIBUNE CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT