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.
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.