When the Texas state legislature first passed it, the law governing motorists who ran up traffic offenses and the fines they would have to pay seemed like a good idea. Get those to break the law to pay for some of the expenses and the state would be able to fund more enforcement or other traffic safety projects.
It didn't quite work out that way. The office at the Department of Public Safety has said that while many people are taking Texas defensive driving courses
, especially teens and younger motorists, the influx of money expected from the fines has not been forthcoming. In fact, over the past several years there have been more than $1 billion in uncollected fees.
The DPS recognizes that some people simply can't afford the $100 to $1,000 annual charges that can come from driving without insurance or a license, or driving while intoxicated. In March, they released proposed new guidelines for those who may not be able to afford the surcharges. Set for a vote next week, they include:
* Possibly waiving fees for individuals who make up to 125 percent of the current federal poverty limit, or $13,358 for an individual in Texas
* The institution of an online application system that would speed the process, similar to unemployment systems in several states
* Applicants must be notified via mail within 90 days
The system would then allow for the violator to pay the bill at a reduced rate if the DPS is to pass it. Other motorists could see fee reductions based on their ability to pay.
Many groups have argued that while mandating defensive driving courses
and fines helps to strengthen the notion of public safety among offenders who now have to contribute, the $1 billion shortfall means that the system needs a substantial change to make it effective as either a deterrent or as a means to generate funds for first responders.
"The proposed rules mark an important recognition by DPS that the Driver Responsibility Program is broken and needs more attention, but they don't go nearly far enough," said Amanda Marzullo of the Texas Fair Defense Project in a statement published by the Houston Chronicle.
Still, many people do not recognize that several smaller offenses require the three-year period of annual surcharges, especially convictions of driving without a license or without proof of insurance. Because these are often treated similarly to other traffic violations with the initial fine levied via a ticket, Texans may not realize that they are still responsible for the additional payments.
Changes to the law will also improve the ability of prosecutors to work through a backlog of DWI cases. Many attorneys argue that the surcharges make it difficult for less affluent Texans to take a plea deal, knowing that if they say they're guilty they face penalties of up to $6,000 over three years for repeat offenses. The local prosecution teams argue that reducing the surcharges would get more offenders into community service or counseling, rather than choosing a longer jury trial that takes up valuable resources.