The Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) was created in 2003 as an attempt to discourage reckless driving by levying additional penalties on people convicted of certain traffic offenses, such as Driving While Intoxicated, Driving While License Invalid, No License, and driving without insurance. The program then uses half of fee revenues to pay for uncompensated trauma care at designated state facilities, under the logic that dangerous drivers should contribute towards the devastating consequences of their actions. Although it is important to promote public safety and ensure that state medical facilities have the resources to care for everyone who comes through their doors, the DRP is inefficient at both funding such care and preventing the need for it in the first place.
It its fiscal analysis for the DRP’s enabling legislation, the Legislative Budget Board estimated that the program would raise approximately $1.3 billion in all-funds revenues in its first five years alone. However, fee assessments were much lower than anticipated, and according to the Comptroller, the program only raised $448 million between fiscal years 2003 and 2008. This means that although the LBB predicted that over $2 billion in surcharges funding emergency care would be levied by 2008, actual assessments fell $747 million short.
Those assessments have also generated much less revenue than expected. Whereas the LBB projected that the DRP would have a 66% collection rate, the program has had lower-than-anticipated collection rates across surcharge categories each year since it was first established. Although more than $3.6 billion in DRP fees have been levied since the program’s inception, only 51%, or $1.4 billion, of these surcharges had been collected at the end of the 2014 fiscal year. The Legislature has made modifications to the program in an effort to increase compliance, establishing installment plans for payment in 2007 and creating an amnesty program in 2009, but noncompliance has continued to increase, and is currently at 54%
The fact of the matter is, many who are required to pay additional DRP fees are simply unable to pay them. Historically, DRP compliance rates have varied by offense category. Cumulatively since 2003, the overwhelming majority of DRP offenses have involved driving without insurance. Not coincidentally, those caught driving without vehicle insurance, which is often unaffordable for low-income drivers, also have the lowest overall compliance rate at 22.9%
The “points” surcharge category, which gives drivers points for causing traffic accidents or speeding and then charges them annual DRP fees once they accrue six, has the highest rate of compliance, and in 2014, only 18.4% of drivers with more than six points failed to pay their fines. Collection rates for DRP charges for driving without insurance have also increased over recent years due to reforms in state auto insurance requirements, but unpaid fees for driving without a license have now replaced lack of insurance as the DRP category with the lowest rate of compliance.
This is because unpaid surcharges ultimately lead to suspended drivers licenses, and even more fines. Since officials have no way of forcing offenders to pay up, their only recourse is to take away the licenses of drivers with delinquent payments, which has led to more and more unlicensed drivers. Currently, 1.3 million drivers convicted of moving violations subject to additional DRP charges have had their licenses revoked due to their inability to pay, creating a never-ending cycle of surcharges and nonpayment.
Half of the revenue that is collected through the Driver Responsibility Program is supposed to fund needed trauma care and EMS services. Yet General Revenue-Dedicated account balances are often left unappropriated and allowed to accumulate so that they can be used to certify GR Fund expenditures, a process that has been a State Constitutional requirement since 1991. Under a mandate to maintain a balanced budget, legislators commonly refrain from spending funds on their intended purposes and rely instead on remaining balances, like those of the Designated Trauma Facility and EMS Account, to count towards the state budget. The Legislature did take steps to reduce reliance on dedicated account balances for certification by reducing available amounts and increasing appropriations from the Trauma Facility Account in 2013. But although trauma-related expenditures have increased, the account balance has already risen back up to $173 million, and continues to rise as deposits outweigh expenditures, which only totaled $142 million last fiscal year.
Money collected through the DRP rarely makes it to the hospitals that need it, but even more important, there is no evidence that the DRP has made roads safer by discouraging reckless driving. Although DRP assessments related to DWIs have risen steadily since 2003, with over 1.2 million charged in 2014 alone, the number of statewide DWI-related fatalities have not decreased, but in fact, have increased since the program’s inception. Simply put, the Driver Responsibility Program is a failed policy. Its snowballing fees are not only unaffordable for many low-income drivers, but even when those funds are collected, they do little to fund hospitals and do nothing to make our roads safer. If safety is indeed the Legislature’s priority, they should focus on providing more transportation alternatives for Texans who are too drunk to drive or cannot afford insurance, instead of charging them excessive fees that just end up being used to balance the budget.