Public Safety Commission Approves Fine Amnesty

A Texas Department of Public Safety official seal.
A Texas Department of Public Safety official seal.

More than 1 million Texans who owe the state Department of Public Safety hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in surcharges for traffic violations might get big break and could soon get back their wheels.

The Texas Public Safety Commission on Thursday approved changes to the Driver Responsibility Program that would include an amnesty program for drivers with outstanding surcharges, reduced fines for poor drivers, and new incentives to encourage more people to pay up. Texas lawmakers approved the Driver Responsibility Act in 2003 to promote safer driving and raise money for roads and trauma centers. The program attaches expensive surcharges to traffic citations for violations like speeding, driving without insurance, and driving while intoxicated. In addition to paying fines and court costs associated with the ticket, drivers must pay an annual surcharge — for multiple years — ranging from $100 to $2,000, or their license will be suspended.

Under the program, more than 1.2 Texas drivers have lost their licenses, and DPS has failed to collect more than 60 percent of about $1.8 billion in surcharges since 2003. Lawmakers in 2007 gave the safety commission authority to find ways to help poor people pay the surcharges. But the commission didn't, so last year legislators required them to create an indigency program. This year, the commission has been working to get the indigency program going. The measures approved Thursday must still go through a public comment period, and the commission probably won't officially adopt them until September.

Here are the proposed new measures:

Amnesty program
— Will apply to those who are in default.
— Will reduce the surcharge to 10 percent of the total surcharges owed, but not more than $250.
— Will rescind license suspensions while payments are being made.

Indigency program
— Will apply to those at or below 125 percent of the poverty level (about $27,562 per year for a family of four) or with a debt-to-income ratio of at least 50 percent
— Will reduce the surcharge to 10 percent of the total surcharges owed, but not more than $250.
— Will rescind license suspensions while payments are being made.

Incentive program
— Those who pay their surcharges in full will pay a smaller amount.
— Those who pay within 30 days will pay 50 percent of the surcharge; within 60 days, 60 percent; and within 90 days, 70 percent.
OR
— Reduced fines for continued payment compliance.

If the new rules are approved, they would be phased in over several months.

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