Texas lawmakers are looking to revise a program that adds fines to drivers charged with driving on an invalid license or without insurance. The policy is being criticized for being too burdensome for Texas drivers who are poor.
It’s called the Driver Responsibility Program and it adds a $250 annual charge for driving without insurance and another $250 surcharge for driving without a license. That charge is supposed to be paid for three consecutive years. And if violators can’t pay the charge, their license is suspended, if it hadn’t been already; they could face jail time and more fines. Edna Staudt is a judge in Williamson County and she doesn't like the program.
"To take a driver’s license from someone: ok when they’re dangerous on the road to you and to me, then lets take their drivers license from them," Staudt said. "But if they don’t have money, that’s a different issue. We shouldn’t be taking their driver’s license because they don’t have money."
The money goes to fund trauma hospitals in Texas. So if the program were cut, lawmakers would face a lot of pressure to find another source of funding. Since the program was enacted in 2003, it’s raised over $643 million dollars for the more than 300 trauma facilities in Texas. Dinah Welsh is a lobbyist for the Texas EMS, Trauma and Acute Care Foundation. She says the system still makes sense.
"It was always about if you’re a bad driver, you cause more accidents, you cause more trauma, you should pay into the trauma system," Welsh said. "And I have to say from the trauma perspective, the program is working."
Though the program collects a lot of money for trauma centers, it could collect more. According to the Department of Public Safety this spring, the program has billed over $3.2 billion in fines to the program, but collected just $1.2 billion. Scott Henson with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition says the policy doesn’t do what it set out to do: make sure Texas drivers have insurance and valid driver’s licenses.
"We need to set those metrics and then try and develop policies that aim toward those," Henson said. "But trying to split the baby and say “oh well, yeah we want to have a little bit of public policy maybe over here, but we can’t get away from the cash cow’ that is just creating the sorta schizophrenic policymaking surrounding this."
The Texas House’s committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety has been working on a draft of the bill that would reduce the fines slightly. Changes to the law wouldn’t happen until after next year’s Legislative session.