Study: No Evidence Virginia’s Steep Fees Deter Abusive Drivers

December 10, 2007

A new report from the legislature’s watchdog agency found no evidence Virginia’s new fees on bad motorists deter abusive driving.

The steep civil penalties for egregious behind-the-wheel behavior are applied inconsistently, according to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.

The agency’s report, delivered last week to the Joint Commission on Transportation Accountability, also found widespread ambiguity about which offenses warrant the fees.

When the law took effect in July, there was public outrage that the fees — sometimes totaling thousands of dollars paid out over three years– don’t apply to out-of-state drivers.

JLARC found that the 30,054 state police citations for reckless driving from July through October was down nearly 11 percent from the 33,622 reckless driving tickets they wrote for the same period in 2006.

State police arrests for driving under the influence, however, increased 9 percent from July through October this year. And speeding arrests for this June through October were up six percent over the same period last year.

Those figures must be regarded cautiously, JLARC warned, because of the brevity of the period and because the data is based on arrests, not convictions. There is considerable variation in the data when viewed in month-to-month snapshots, it cautioned. Also state police figures can be inconsistent, and numbers can change as new data are added.

The fees were enacted as part of the 2007 transportation funding law to help finance highway maintenance. Supporters claimed that the fees, which could amount to $3,000 for the worst offenses and paid on top of fines, court costs and even jail time, would make the highways safer by discouraging fast, aggressive or drunken driving.

It has not reduced highway carnage. By Wednesday, 949 people had died on Virginia’s roads compared with 894 at the same point a year ago, said State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller. Virginia is on pace to exceed 1,000 annual highway fatalities for the first time in 17 years, she said.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who signed the transportation bill into law, has said the abusive driving provisions need major fixes, perhaps even repeal. Sen. R. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania, already has introduced a bill that he said would “not just fix this bad boy but drive a stake through it.”

At a minimum, legislators will narrow the list of offenses that trigger the fees and apply the penalties to out-of-state offenders.

The report found ambiguity in the law and uncertainty about offenses to which the penalties apply.

“The inconsistent application of the law may also be the result of law enforcement officers and judges simply deciding to treat some violators more leniently,” the report says. “Judges sometimes amend reckless (driving) charges to speeding.”

It said officers often are reluctant to charge violators with reckless driving _ a charge that could be triggered by a number of violations, including exceeding the speed limit by 20 miles per hour _ because they are more likely to be contested in court than a speeding ticket. That chews up more of an officer’s time in court and increases administrative costs. It gives examples:

In Albemarle County, a driver doing 67 mph in a 45 mph zone got a speeding ticket.

In Fairfax County, an officer ticketed a driver clocked at 78 mph in a 55 mph zone for speeding.

One area where the abusive driver law might deliver is its estimated $65 million revenue yield, the report says. It’s a tiny fraction of the total $1 billion transportation funding package, the first significant infusion of cash for roads, rails and transit in 21 years.

That estimate, however, doesn’t contemplate fees lost when judges reduce serious infractions to lesser offenses or the discretion judges have to decide which offenses are subject to the fees.

The report did not inspire confidence among legislators on the Transportation Accountability panel.

“It spotlights areas that need attention,” said Del. Joe May, R-Loudoun, the commission’s chairman.

He said that the report doesn’t convince him the fees are bad enough to repeal. “But it doesn’t tell me it’s good enough to keep, either.”

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