Program Failures

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The Unjustified Justification of the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP)

A truly laudable intent for Texas’ Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) is to generate funds to further a worthy cause.  Seeing as these funds are to be used to aid Texas trauma hospital patients, the unfair surcharges are justified in the name of saving lives.  Right?  Tragically, even this is just another failure on the part of the state when it comes to the DRP.

In 2012, Texas trauma hospitals incurred a total of $234 million in uncompensated care costs[i] but received only $55 million in reimbursements from the state in the form of DRP surcharge revenue.[ii]  In each of the past five fiscal years, the DRP has covered between 23% and 33% of hospitals’ uncompensated care costs, amounting to 30.6% of total uncompensated care costs between fiscal years 2008 and 2012.[vi]

Why is there such a large gap in reimbursements?  Where are DRP fees really going?

The answer is disturbing but unsurprising.

The Texas Legislature deems it necessary to hoard this money in hopes of covering future budget shortfalls.  That’s right; the same Legislature that devised this scheme to help hospitals has found it best to pocket the money even if it comes at the cost of lives.

This is yet another reason we need your help to abolish this program that unfortunately has failed even by its own standards. Instead the legislature should designate money from general revenue to aid  hospitals meet the trauma needs of Texans.

Please join our efforts and share your stories!

  

[i] Figure derived from “Designated Trauma Facility and Emergency Medical Service Account: FY05-FY12 Disbursements,” prepared by the Texas Department of State Health Services and “Allocation of Driver Responsibility Revenues: FY04-FY12” prepared by the Comptroller of Public Accounts. Data available upon request.

[ii] “Calculated Uncompensated Trauma Care Costs Reported in DSHS Uncompensated Trauma Care Funding Application (2004 – 2012),” prepared by the Texas Department of State Health Services.  Data available upon request.

[iii] “Designated Trauma Facility and Emergency Medical Service Account: FY05 – FY12 Disbursements,” prepared by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Data available upon request.

The DRP has generated far less revenue than originally anticipated.[i]  Whether due to confusion over being fined for a criminal offense already adjudicated by a court of law, or due to an inability to afford the surcharges, the majority of Texas drivers subjected to DRP surcharges never pay them.  As of August 31, 2012, of the $2.85 billion in total surcharges assessed by DPS since the program’s inception, only $1.14 billion – less than 40% – had been collected.[ii]

This low collection rate has persisted despite the enactment of two programs that have sought to boost collections, specifically by reducing surcharges for drivers with suspended licenses due to overdue surcharges.  Started in 2011, the Indigence program offers reduced surcharges to drivers earning less than 125% of the Federal Poverty Guideline ($29,000 per year for a household of four in 2012).  The Amnesty program was a one-time program in 2011 offering drivers with past-due surcharge debt the ability to reinstate their licenses in exchange for paying similarly reduced amounts.

As the following charts indicate, the two programs have had minimal impact on surcharge collection rates.  The Amnesty program increased collections from 39.6% to 41.4%.[iii]  The Indigence program increased the Department of Public Safety’s overall collection rate for DRP surcharges from 38.8% to 39.1% in FY 2012[AYC1] .[iv]

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[i] According to the Fiscal Note for CSHB 3203 (78R), the Legislative Budget Board determined that the DRP would raise approximately $1.3 billion in all-funds revenues during its first five years.  According to data from the Comptroller’s office, however, the program raised only $448 million between fiscal years 2004 and 2008. Fiscal note available online at: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/tlodocs/78R/fiscalnotes/pdf/HB03203H.pdf#navpanes=0

[ii] Texas Department of Public Safety, email to State Rep. Sylvester Turner. Data available upon request.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.


 [AYC1]Kim: please add lines linking slices to amounts.

For years, judges, prosecutors, and other criminal justice practitioners have expressed concern over the degree to which DRP surcharges are distorting Texas’ court system.  From declining DWI conviction rates to surging DWLI offenses to exploding caseload backlogs, the DRP’s impact on Texas courts are yet another example of the unintended consequences of this ill-conceived program.

As discussed, unpaid surcharges have forced hundreds of thousands of drivers onto Texas roads with suspended licenses – leading to increasing numbers of DWLI convictions.  In the past three years alone, the DRP has resulted in an additional 403,517 DWLI convictions,[i] creating a new class of “criminals” and clogging court dockets.[ii]  According to Shannon Edmonds of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, in some Texas counties, one in five misdemeanor cases involves drivers with suspended licenses.[iii]

Furthermore, since the DRP levies automatic surcharges upon conviction of certain traffic offenses, Texas drivers are doing more and more to avoid convictions and the surcharges that accompany them.  This is particularly so in the case of DWI offenses, for which surcharges are especially punitive, often totaling more than $5,000.  Increasing numbers of drivers accused of DWIs are now declining plea deals and choosing to go to trial in hopes of acquittal and avoiding crushing surcharges.  The result is skyrocketing DWI caseloads for Texas courts.  According to testimony provided to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in a 2010 hearing on impaired driving in Texas, DWI caseloads have increased by 25,000 cases since the DRP began.[iv]  At the current statewide case disposition rates, it would take 16 years to dispose of the backlog.[v]

“These surcharges have dealt a severe blow to Texas’ already strained court system. From a criminal justice perspective, and particularly as it relates to DWI cases, I can see no benefit to this program.” – Judge David Hodges, Judicial Program Manager, Texas Association of Counties

While the DRP generates revenue for the state and trauma hospitals, it imposes a significant financial burden on counties.  In addition to the increased number of DWI cases going to trial, the hundreds of thousands of additional misdemeanor charges (particularly DWLI and FMFR) resulting from driver license suspensions cost counties millions of dollars in court administration costs.  According to the Texas Association of Counties, counties only recover about 30% of what their courts spend to process criminal cases.[vi]  The rest of those costs falls on local taxpayers.  El Paso County, for example, spends $24.2 million annually in criminal court costs, yet it only retains $7.4 million in fines and fees – or 31%.[vii]

The DRP also increases counties’ jail costs.  Because most drivers continue to drive despite defaulting on their surcharges, many of those drivers wind up in county jails due to accumulated, unpaid traffic tickets and/or for driving with a suspended license.[viii]  (Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Atwater v. Lago Vista, a Texas police officer can legally arrest a driver on the suspended license charge alone,[ix] but more frequently drivers end up in jail when arrest warrants are issued for accumulated, unpaid citations.)  Incarcerating such individuals puts more pressure on often-already crowded local jails, and, at a cost of $59 per bed per day, creates an additional financial burden on counties.[x]

As mentioned in Failure #1, stakeholders also attribute declining DWI conviction rates to the DRP.  In addition to more DWI cases being dismissed in order to avoid onerous surcharges, more cases are being tried under lesser charges such as reckless driving and public intoxication to reduce the backlogs.[xi]  Declining DWI convictions means missing out on opportunities to reduce DWI recidivism through court-mandated monitoring and treatment programs.



[i] Texas Department of Public Safety, email to State Rep. Sylvester Turner. Data available upon request.

[ii] Terrence Stutz, “Texas’ steep surcharges for driving violations clog courts, increase DWI dismissals, ex-judge tells panel,” The Dallas Morning News, April 27, 2010.  Online at: http://www.dallasnews.com/news/politics/texas-legislature/headlines/20100427-Texas-steep-surcharges-for-driving-8326.ece

[iii] Brandi Grissom, “Many Texans lose licenses in driver points program,” El Paso Times, August 19, 2007.

[iv] Hodges testimony in Senate Committee Interim Report, p. 22-23.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] David Hodges (Judicial Program Manager, Texas Association of Counties) in interview with Craig Adair, December 6, 2012.

[vii] Veronica Escobar (El Paso County Judge), letter to the Texas Judicial Council, February 23, 2012.

[viii] Grissom, “Many Texans lose licenses in driver points program.”

[ix] Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318 (2001) 195 F.3d 242, affirmed.

[x] Brandon Wood (Assistant Director, Texas Commission on Jail Standards), in presentation at American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section, Roundtable on Pretrial Detention in Texas, held in Austin, Texas, March 30, 2012.

[xi] “Texas DWI fines aren’t working,” San Antonio Express News, November 14, 2010.  Online at: http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/article/Texas-DWI-fines-aren-t-working-813190.php

Driver Responsibility Program Failure #3: Financial Hardship for Texans

While annual surcharges may be a mere nuisance for well-heeled Texans, they can be a devastating blow to low-income drivers and families.  The economic impact of license surcharge programs has been studied in detail in states with laws similar to Texas, and they have been found to severely undermine low-income drivers’ financial security.

A 2006 survey from the New Jersey Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force examined the surcharge’s impact on drivers with licenses suspended due to their own Driver Responsibility Program, which levies the same license surcharges as the Texas DRP. According to that survey, among persons with suspended licenses whose annual income was under $30,000:

  • 64% were unable to maintain their employment following a license suspension;
  • 51% of persons who lost their job following a license suspension were unable to find new employment;
  • 65% were unable to pay increased insurance costs; and
  • 90% were unable to pay other costs as a result of surcharges and/or suspended driving privileges.

“Here’s a terrible program that used punitive fines to plug holes in the budget. Our founders never intended for debtor’s prisons to substitute for a tax system.” – Former State Senator Elliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso)

In addition, of those men and women who were able to find a new job following a license suspension-related dismissal, 88% reported a reduction in income.  The report also found that surcharges impact not just the penalized drivers, but their families and the local labor force as well.[i]

Undoubtedly, of the 1.3 million Texas drivers who have lost their licenses due to defaulted DRP surcharge debt, a significant number make less than $30,000 per year.[ii]  Thus, in addition to increasing the number of uninsured drivers, the Driver Responsibility Program surcharges may be a major cause of job loss and financial hardship in Texas.


[i] “Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force Final Report,” Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center (Rutgers University) and New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, February 2006. Online at: http://www.state.nj.us/mvc/pdf/About/AFTF_final_02.pdf.

[ii] According to data from the Texas Dept. of Public Safety, as of August 31, 2011, 83% of the surcharges levied in Texas had been assessed for three violations: FMFR, No License, and DWLI.  According to the New Jersey study cited, a disproportionate share of individuals whose licenses are suspended for these three offenses make less than $28,000 per year.

As mentioned previously, 1.3 million Texas drivers currently have invalid licenses because of overdue DRP surcharges.  Since a valid driver’s license is a requirement to purchase liability insurance, many of those drivers are no longer able to insure their vehicles.  Given the lack of viable transportation alternatives in most of Texas (especially rural areas), large numbers – if not virtually all – of those drivers likely continue to drive.

These additional uninsured drivers constitute a significant cost to the Texas public.  In 2010, there were 5,419,000 crashes[i] in the United States and 210,114,939 licensed drivers,[ii] yielding an overall accident rate of 2.58%.  If we assume those 1.3 million surcharge debtors in Texas who lost their licenses (and therefore became ineligible to purchase insurance) continued to drive, and that they crash at the same rate as other drivers, then by reducing the number of insured drivers, drivers who lost their license through the DRP are involved in approximately 33,000 accidents per year.   If DRP drivers were the responsible party in half of those accidents (a conservative estimate, as drivers with bad driving histories may be more likely to be at fault), then the DRP could be responsible for an additional 16,000 accidents per year in which the party at fault is not insured.

Those accidents cost Texans dearly in the form of uncompensated damages.  In 2000, a federal study analyzed costs from auto accidents, including medical costs, property damage, etc., attributing $230.6 billion in costs to 16.4 million auto accidents nationwide, at an average cost of $14,061 per accident.[iii]   Adjusting for inflation, that’s $18,748 in 2012 dollars.  Multiplying that figure by the number of estimated crashes with surcharge-owing drivers in Texas, the DRP could be costing Texans $300 million per year in uncovered damages from crashes, with uninsured motorists unable to obtain or keep insurance simply because those drivers could not or would not pay punitive drivers’ license surcharges.

$300 million is more than five times the amount of DRP surcharge revenue distributed to Texas trauma hospitals in 2012, and over four times the average annual amount distributed in the past five years.[iv]  What’s more, $300 million is almost twice the average annual total amount of surcharge revenue generated by the DRP since its creation in 2003.[v]  These costs in uncompensated damages are unintended consequences of the DRP, but they are costs that Texans cannot afford.

Of particular concern are individuals with DWI offenses who lose their licenses and continue to drive.  When those drivers are involved in crashes, the DRP makes it less likely they will have insurance to cover damages.  Despite claims to the contrary when the DRP was adopted by the Legislature, DRP surcharges have resulted in more uninsured drunks on Texas roads – not fewer.


[i] “2010 Motor Vehicle Safety: Overview – Highlights,” NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts, prepared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, February 2012. Online at: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811552.pdf

[ii] “Highway Statistics Series: Licensed Total Drivers, by Age – 2010,” prepared by the Federal Highway Administration, September 2011. Online at: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2010/dl22.cfm

[iii] “The Economic Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes 2000,” prepared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2002. Online at: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/809446.PDF

[iv] “Designated Trauma Facility and Emergency Medical Service Account: FY05-FY12 Disbursements,” prepared by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Data available upon request.

[v] Ibid.

Besides raising revenue for the state, the principal objective of the Driver Responsibility Program has been to improve public safety. However, there is no evidence that the DRP has increased public safety. When asked during a 2010 hearing of the House Committee on Public Safety whether any evidence exists showing
that the DRP increases public safety, DPS Director Steve McCraw answered simply and emphatically, “No, sir. Not at all.” In fact, evidence indicates that the program may actually be making the public less safe, particularly as it relates to an especially dangerous habit in Texas – drunk driving.

Surcharges levied under the DRP are significantly higher for DWI offenses than those assessed for other traffic offenses. If the program was working as intended – with those surcharges serving as a deterrent to drunk driving – one would expect to see fewer traffic fatalities involving drunk drivers. In fact, the opposite
has occurred, and over the past decade, Texas’ rate for alcohol-impaired fatalities has increased compared to other states. Texas now ranks ninth highest out of 50 states for alcohol-related driving fatalities.

Taking a closer look at the data, the percentage of fatal automobile crashes in Texas that involve alcohol increased from 26% to 34% since the DRP’s inception in 2003. Similarly, the percentage of traffic fatalities involving alcohol increased from 27% to 34% during that time.

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This upward trend is particularly striking when one considers that overall traffic fatalities have decreased by 27% in Texas over the same time period. Nationally, too, overall traffic fatalities are decreasing, and experts attribute it to a combination of behavioral, regulatory, and technological factors including increased seat belt use, greater enforcement of minimum drinking-age laws, and increasing prevalence of automobile safety features, such as air bags and electronic safety control (ESC) systems.

Perhaps one reason the DRP has not reduced alcohol-related traffi c fatalities is because of how the program appears to be thwarting eff orts to reduce DWI recidivism. Discussed in greater detail below, prosecutors and court officials report that the exorbitant surcharges for DWI convictions are causing increasing numbers of DWI cases to be prosecuted as reckless driving or other, lesser offenses in order to avoid the surcharges. This makes Texans less safe because many programs proven to change drivers’ behavior and reduce DWI recidivism are typically required as a condition for probation, a common penalty for a fi rst-time DWI conviction.

In addition, increasing numbers of drivers charged with DWIs are declining plea bargains and, instead, opting to go to trial in hopes of avoiding the massive DRP surcharges that accompany a conviction. In fact, DWI conviction rates have declined 10% between 2003 and 2011,14 which means that, in 2011 alone, an additional 7,000 Texas drivers that were arrested and charged with a DWI were never convicted due to decreasing conviction rates. Again, these individuals are losing the opportunity to undergo behavioral programming that would normally result from a conviction and probation sentence.

If prosecutors, judges, and other stakeholders are correct that DRP surcharges are the main culprit behind declining DWI convictions, the surcharges could be sending more drunk drivers back out onto Texas roads and highways, making all Texans less safe.