Unpaid Traffic Fines in Texas Invalidate Licenses for Thousands

October 15, 2007

More than 750,000 Texans are driving without valid licenses because they haven’t paid stiff annual penalties – as much as $2,000 for three years – added to various traffic violations in 2004.

The state has nearly $620 million in uncollected surcharges on convictions that include driving while intoxicated, failure to provide insurance and having an invalid license, according to figures compiled by the Texas Department of Public Safety and provided to The Dallas Morning News.

The surcharges are part of the Texas Driver Responsibility Program, which was approved by the Legislature and implemented in September 2004 by DPS. The money is earmarked for trauma care.

The biggest fees are for DWI: $1,000 a year for three years for the first conviction, $1,500 a year for the second and $2,000 a year for any conviction with a blood-alcohol content at least twice the legal limit (0.16 or greater). Those caught without insurance or with an invalid license are supposed to pay $250 per year for three years.

The idea was to levy hefty fines for certain violations to discourage those types of offenses and raise funding for pressing needs. But just 32 percent of the surcharges have been collected.

“There are a number of reasons why people don’t comply with the law, but personal finances is probably the main reason,” said Tela Mange, a DPS spokeswoman. “Many drivers just don’t have the money. Paying $1,000 a year for three years is a lot of money for some people.”

Despite the highest fees, DWI violators had the best rate of paying or continuing to pay at 39 percent. The lowest rate was among those cited for having an invalid license – 26 percent. Drivers ticketed for no insurance were paying at a rate of 38 percent.

Mange said some people avoid paying by gambling that they won’t get stopped again – the main way those who haven’t paid are caught. When drivers are caught, the fines mount because they are driving illegally with suspended licenses.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, who sponsored the legislation, and other lawmakers wonder whether the penalties are so high that they actually provide an incentive for people not to pay. But the Legislature didn’t reduce the fees in its latest session, leaving it to DPS to devise ways to improve the collection rate.

“If we could only collect all the fines and fees the state is owed, we could cut taxes because we would have a lot more money than we have now,” said Ogden, also noting that the unpaid surcharges haven’t been a problem for the state budget because collections of sales taxes and other state taxes are higher.

DPS could use collection agencies, which would be paid up to 30 percent of what they collect, or try such carrots as installments or partial amnesty programs. But Mange said it wouldn’t be a good idea for people to wait for amnesty, something DPS has never granted for traffic tickets.

“You can get arrested if you’re pulled over for other traffic violations, and the more infractions you have, the less the judge will be impressed with your driving record,” said Mange, adding that DPS hopes to implement a plan to improve the collection rates in the next few months.

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