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Texas Driver Responsibility Program

The following is our testimony to the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee on April 14th. It is our desire to see the TDRP abolished. But in the interim, we hope to lessen its negative impact on our citizens. This testimony was delivered by Scott Henson, policy consultant for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Dear Members of the Committee,

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to present testimony on interim charge 4, Review the Driver Responsibility Program and consider methods for overall improvement of the program.  While the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition has long sought abolishment of Texas’ Driver Responsibility Program, we offer alternatives below that will help to reduce the burden on Texas drivers and local courts.

Texas’ Driver Responsibility Program has failed abysmally from any and every perspective. 

Sixty percent of surcharges assessed under the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) go unpaid.[1]  The DRP not only failed to diminish the proportion of unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the road, it dramatically increased their number.[2]  It has harmed the economy, preventing workers without driver’s licenses from finding employment[3] and increasing the number of accidents involving uninsured motorists.  Rather than create disincentives for drunk driving, it reduced the proportion of DWI arrests that result in convictions.[4]  And it even only partly fulfills its promise to pay for uncompensated care at trauma hospitals: Instead of spending surcharge money as originally intended, the Legislature withheld tens of millions from hospitals to certify the budget.[5]

In 2013, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition published a detailed report documenting the DRP’s numerous failures, which at this point are well known to the committee.[6]  We have long taken the position that the Texas Legislature should abolish the DRP and find alternative sources of revenue to subsidize trauma hospitals.[7]  We still believe that would be the best public policy for Texas and urge the committee to summon the political courage to take that step.

Based on your past deliberations, however, we understand the Committee’s hesitation to recommend elimination of the surcharge program until alternative funding for trauma hospitals can be identified.  Even so, there are incremental steps Texas could take to mitigate the harms caused by the DRP.  Today we want to focus on those more modest reforms, keeping in mind that, in the long-term, the program should be completely abolished.

Until then, there are several things that Texas could do shy of abolition that would improve the status quo:

Order DPS to create a real Amnesty program and employ more resources to publicize it.

The Legislature ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to create an Amnesty program. Instead, the agency implemented just one Amnesty period (in 2011) and failed to adequately publicize it, relying on unpaid publicity from the mainstream media that was spotty and unfocused. Even so, about 14 percent of eligible drivers – nearly 100,000 out of 700,000 – took advantage of the lower payments to clear their records and regain their driver’s licenses.  The Legislature should direct DPS to create a program with regular, biennial Amnesty periods and invest resources into notifying eligible drivers by mail and phone. 

Lower all surcharge amounts and apply them for only one year instead of three.

The current surcharge structure is confusing and poorly understood by those to whom it applies.  Many drivers do not understand why they would be charged a separate, civil surcharge on top of tickets they have already paid, much less why they must continue paying three years hence for tickets they may not even distinctly recall.  Most surcharges are not collected because they are too expensive and levied for too long following the tickets that trigger them.  By reducing surcharge totals and focusing collection on a single year instead of stretching it out over time, payment rates would increase and some of the DRP’s most onerous features would be substantially mitigated.

Make the No Insurance, No Drivers License, and Driving While License Invalid surcharges part of the point system, leaving DWI as the only conviction-based surcharge.

Texas should make it easier, not harder, for people to get and keep a license and insurance if they are safe drivers. Driving with no insurance, without a license, or with an expired license should not automatically incur these surcharges because they become a significant financial barrier to driving legally.  They are more akin to the type of moving violations that do not accrue surcharges unless drivers accumulate several of them under the point system.  Short of abolition, the surcharge should be focused more tightly on drunk drivers and people who accumulate multiple moving violations over time.  Lesser offenses that do not in and of themselves endanger the public should not incur automatic surcharges.

Include notice about surcharges on citations for affected offenses, and require courts to provide information about surcharges and reduction programs at the time of conviction.

Right now, many people do not find out they owe a surcharge until DPS sends them a post-conviction letter.  When the surcharge first passed in 2003, then-state Senator Jeff Wentworth tried to add language on the Senate floor to ensure drivers were notified up front when pleading guilty to a traffic offense that would incur one, but the amendment was rejected.  Such notification would prevent much confusion about the program, which for many drivers seems redundant and counterintuitive.

Develop a “tiered settlement” program to collect lower amounts on older surcharges.

The Legislature should recognize that it has created an untenable economic situation for some drivers and create a means for them to resolve old debts.  Many surcharges on the books date from as long as a decade ago and the likelihood drivers will ever pay in full is small.  Drivers who owe thousands in old, defaulted surcharges may just give up hope that they can ever get out from under this debt. Settling those old debts for lower amounts would allow drivers to regain their licenses and obtain insurance, whereas right now many if not most simply drive without legal sanction.

Allow surcharges to be discharged in bankruptcy proceedings.

The court case disallowing surcharges to be discharged through bankruptcy proceedings – Holder v. State of Texas – premised its decision on the notion that surcharges are similar to criminal fines, which cannot be eliminated through bankruptcy. But surcharges are actually civil, not criminal, fees charged to drivers in addition to criminal fines and penalties.  Allowing surcharges to be reduced or eliminated via bankruptcy proceedings would mitigate the amount of bad debt on the books and potentially facilitate partial payment of old debt.

Allow drivers to apply for occupational licenses through an online portal without having to hire an attorney.

Drivers who have lost their licenses due to surcharges are eligible for occupational licenses, but private attorneys may charge thousands of dollars to process their applications.  In most cases, if those divers had thousands of dollars at their disposal they would simply pay their surcharges. The Legislature should streamline this process by requiring DPS to facilitate such applications online without having to retain counsel.

* * *

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition hesitates to suggest reforms that might make the Driver Responsibility surcharge sustainable, even temporarily, because the program is fundamentally unfair and suffers from deep, abiding flaws.  The Legislature should eliminate it entirely and pay for trauma hospitals out of general fund revenue or some other source.  If the State will not take that step, though, these suggestions would mitigate some of the worst harms, and we encourage you to seriously consider them.


[1] “Reform sought in Texas ticket surcharge program,” El Paso Times, Sept. 22, 2013. “Since its inception in 2003, the Driver Responsibility Program has collected only $1.14 billion of the $2.85 billion of the charges it levied.”

[2] Texas Department of Public Safety, 2013 email to State Rep. Sylvester Turner. Data available upon request. More than 2 million people have lost their drivers licenses as a result of unpaid surcharges, with around 1.3 million licenses currently suspended for lack of payment.

[3] The New Jersey Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force published a report in 2006 on their surcharge program, after which Texas’ Driver Responsibility surcharge was modeled. (See: http://www.state.nj.us/mvc/pdf/About/AFTF_final_02.pdf) They found that, of persons with suspended licenses whose annual income was under $30,000: (1) 64% were unable to maintain their prior employment following a license suspension; (2) only 51% of persons who lost their job following a license suspension were able to find new employment; (3) 66% reported that their license suspension negatively affected their job performance; and (4) 90% of persons whose license was suspended within this income bracket indicated that they were unable to pay costs that were related to their suspended driving privileges. In addition, of those who were able to find a new job following a license suspension-related dismissal, 88% reported a reduction in income.

[4] Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee Interim Report, Dec. 15, 2010, pp. 22-23. According to Judge David Hodges, Judicial Liaison for the Texas Center for the Judiciary, “Since imposing these surcharges: Conviction rates have decreased every year; in 2005, 99,501 DWI arrest resulted in 63,132 convictions. In 2009, 102,309 DWI arrest resulted in 44,777 convictions. Dismissal rates have increased every year; DWI cases are prosecuted as reckless driving, obstruction of highway, and public intoxication, in order to avoid the civil penalty.”

[5] “Interactive: Billions of dedicated funds unspent,” The Texas Tribune, Dec. 6, 2012. http://www.texastribune.org/library/data/dedicated-revenue-funds-list/

[6] Wrong Way for Texas: The Driver Responsibility Program, A Texas-Size Failure, February 2013. http://texasdriverresponsibilityprogram.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Driver-Responsibility-Program.pdf

[7] In our 2013 report, we suggested Texas could make up the money with an additional $0.15 per pack tax on cigarettes, a $0.06 per six-pack tax on beer, or a one percent tax on carbonated soda. Also, because the Legislature has withheld surcharge money from trauma centers to certify the budget, the state could continue to make payments to hospitals from the “Designated Trauma Facility & Emergency Medical Services Account” at current rates and not run out of money through 2021.

Texas DPR News: What to expect at the April 14th Hearing on the Driver Responsibility Program

This Monday (April 14th) is the Texas House of Representatives’ hearing on the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP).  This is an amazing opportunity to come out and provide your experiences, thoughts, and stories directly to the Legislature.


For those who may be unfamiliar with public hearings, we wanted to give a general rundown of typical procedure.

When not in legislative session, Texas’ legislative committees consider “charges” (inquiries into certain issues) that they want to undertake to help them be more effective once session commences.  During this legislative interim, these charges include finding out how to better improve the DRP.

So this Monday, members of the Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety will be holding a hearing just to hear the public’s thoughts and concerns about the program.

Screen shot 2014-04-11 at 10.45.24 AMThe hearing will begin at 9:00 am in Capitol extension room E2.010.  If you would like to testify, you will have to complete information at a kiosk (see photo to the right) outside of the committee room:

  • You will have to fully enter your contact information.
  • In the position section (e.g., “for” or “against”) you should choose “neutral.”
  • If you are asked for your interest in this matter, you could write something like “abolish the DRP, but in the meantime improve the program” or “help Texas drivers avoid long-term debt”

For more info on registering at a kiosk, or on your iPad, click here.


PLEASE NOTE: During the hearing on Monday, committee members will also be addressing the tragic incident that took place in a West, Texas, fertilizer plant.  It is likely that they will do that inquiry before hearing thoughts on the DRP.  So after that initial inquiry concludes, the committee will welcome people to speak about their experiences with the DRP.  

They will call people up one by one, reading the names that were provided on the kiosk.

Please be patient and wait for the members’ discussion of the DRP!  No hearing can be possible without the voices willing to be heard, so we need all of you to come and be heard!

*   *   *   *   *

For a copy of the testimony that TCJC will be presenting at the hearing on Monday, please click here.

For our report on the DRP, click here.

And for more information on the hearing, click here.

In a previous article we explored the first tier of the two-tier system that the Department of Public Safety (DPS) uses to gauge how much one has to pay in surcharges. Now we will delve into the second level – conviction based surcharges. Unlike the point system, with conviction based surcharges the amount one has to pay is predetermined based on the type of conviction.

Since these specified offenses come with an automatic surcharge, they do not count as points on one’s driving record. Although there isn’t a corresponding point value, these offenses come at a greater cost to those convicted.

Type of Conviction

Surcharge Amount

1st Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) OffenseTexas or out-of state conviction for DWI, Intoxication Assault or Manslaughter


Subsequent DWI OffenseTexas or out-of state conviction for DWI, Intoxication Assault or Manslaughter


DWI with Blood Alcohol Concentration of 0.16 or MoreTexas or out-of state conviction


No Insurance


Driving While License Invalid (DWLI)Driver license is canceled, suspended, denied or revoked


No Driver LicenseNo driver license or commercial driver license, an expired license or endorsement violation(s)


Conviction Based surcharges are reported by the court to DPS directly. Therefore, there are often delays between the date of conviction and the date on which the conviction is actually posted to a driver’s driving record.

 [i] Texas Department of Public Safety, “Driver Responsibility Program”
Austin, TX: 2014, Texas Department of Public Safety

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.

Screen shot 2014-02-03 at 2.42.40 PM

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.

Above and beyond any criminal penalties and court fines, the DRP requires the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to assess annual, administrative surcharges on the drivers’ licenses of persons convicted of certain traffic offenses. Surcharges are levied every year for three years. If a driver fails to pay assessed surcharges, the program requires DPS to automatically suspend the person’s driver’s license until the debt is paid.

The DPS levies surcharges in two ways:

  • a point system based on the commission of moving (e.g., traffi c) violations, and
  • a conviction-based surcharge for the commission of certain higher-level traffic offenses.

Under the point system, drivers convicted of Class C Misdemeanor moving violations accrue two points for each conviction and three points for moving violations resulting in vehicle accidents. No points are accrued for speeding violations less than 10% over the speed limit. If a driver accrues six or more points during a three-year period, a surcharge is assessed on that person’s driver’s license. An annual surcharge of $100 is levied for the first six points accrued on a person’s driving record, and $25 for each additional point.

Under the conviction-based system, DPS levies automatic surcharges upon conviction of the following traffic offenses:

  • Driving While Intoxicated (DWI)
  • Driving While License Invalid (DWLI)
  • No License
  • Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility (FMFR) (or “No Insurance”)

For DWI convictions, the DPS levies an annual surcharge of $1,000 for a first offense, $1,500 for a second offense, and $2,000 if the driver’s blood alcohol content is 0.16 or more at the time of arrest. For DWLI or FMFR convictions, the annual surcharge is $250. The surcharge for No License is $100.

Because surcharges are cumulative, a driver could pay surcharges for points as well as for specific convictions at the same time – substantially increasing surcharges owed. Conviction-based surcharges are also cumulative. For example, a person convicted of a first DWI in 2011 and a second DWI in 2012 would be charged $1,000 per year for three years for the first offense and $1,500 per year for three years for the second offense, for a total of $7,500 in surcharges over a four-year period.

DPS notifies individuals of assessed surcharges and the penalty for non-payment of the surcharges. If an individual has not paid the surcharge (or agreed to an installment plan) within 105 days of assessment, his or her driver’s license is automatically suspended.