by EDGAR WALTERS
The Texas Department of Public Safety announced Wednesday the start of a second program to help poor drivers pay off expensive surcharges and get their driver’s licenses back.
Under the controversial Driver Responsibility Program, drivers who receive certain traffic violations face hefty surcharges in addition to fines and legal costs associated with the traffic ticket. Texans caught driving without insurance, without a license and while intoxicated are charged the additional fees, and failure to pay results in a suspended license. The DPS has suspended more than 1.2 million licenses since Texas enacted the program in 2003.
Critics of the program say that it has been ineffective at collecting funds, does little to improve driver safety and has resulted in the unnecessary suspension of hundreds of Texans’ licenses. Some have said the program amounts to double jeopardy, charging offenders twice for the same violation. But supporters argue that the funds it generates are critical to keeping trauma centers open in Texas and that irresponsible drivers should help bear the burden for the cost of car accidents that drive up the cost of emergency care.
The new incentive program applies to individuals whose total household income is above 125 percent but below 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or between about $29,437 and $70,650 per year for a family of four. Surcharge fees assigned to those individuals can be reduced by 50 percent. The program removes surcharge license suspensions for six months, in which time drivers can pay the reduced fee.
The DPS has offered a separate indigency program since 2011. That program applies to drivers whose household income is at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level, and reduces surcharges to 10 percent of the total charged or a maximum of $250. The new incentive program supplements is a supplement to the indigency program, and drivers will use the same application process for both, ensuring that those who are denied indigency status will automatically be considered for the incentive program.
The reforms attempt to address one of the biggest criticisms of the Driver Responsibility Program: Many drivers are unable to pay the expensive surcharges. Prior to the indigency program’s implementation, as much as 60 percent of the fines went uncollected. A bipartisan group of five state representatives filed legislation in 2013 that would have eliminated the program, but the measure failed to make it out of committee.
State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, was one of the bill’s authors. He said he still wants the Driver Responsibility Program repealed, but he commended DPS for the incentive program. “I think they’re being really creative and deserve some credit,” he said.
Health care officials have called on lawmakers not to abolish the program, because a large portion of the fees have helped pay for trauma care in hospital emergency rooms across Texas.
EDGAR WALTERS interns for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.