Lawmakers Advocate Ending Driver Responsibility Program

Texas Department of Public Safety patch worn on a uniform during an April 7, 2011 graduation ceremony in Austin.
Texas Department of Public Safety patch worn on a uniform during an April 7, 2011 graduation ceremony in Austin.

Three Texas lawmakers announced Thursday that they are pushing legislation to end the Texas Driver Responsibility Program, an initiative that was started to raise funds for trauma hospitals through surcharges on driving offenses.

State Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, was joined by state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, and state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, in announcing House Bill 104, legislation that would repeal the 10-year old program. All three lawmakers say that though the program was created with good intentions, it has created a headache for many Texans.

Turner, who authored the original bill that created the program in 2003, said that lawmakers need to recognize they made a mistake and repeal the program, which he agrees has been ineffective.

“It was a good idea, but it has had some very bad outcomes," Turner said.

Under the program, DPS administers annual surcharges on the drivers’ licenses of people convicted of driving offenses, including minor moving violations or more serious alcohol-related offenses. High-level offenses receive automatic surcharges, and lesser violations are assessed through a point system. Individuals are notified by mail each time a surcharge is added to their driver record. If a driver does not pay fines within 105 days of assessment, his or her license can be revoked.

This system of collecting charges has resulted in 1.3 million Texas drivers with invalid licenses, according to Turner.

Gonzales says this has created a “compounding cycle,” where people who cannot pay the surcharges continue to drive, out of necessity, and rack up additional charges from penalties. He says that people who have their license revoked, and continue to drive, are less likely to have auto insurance, causing additional concerns. 

He also says that only about 40 percent of charges have been collected through the program. That amounts to $370 million, which Burnam said was adequate to fund trauma centers until 2019, if the program were to be repealed. He added that these funds would secure operations until the Legislature could find a solution for future funding.

John Hawkins, senior vice president for advocacy and public policy for the Texas Hospital Association, said that there are broad concerns over whether a new funding source for trauma centers can be found, given the political and economic climate. He says that if the state does not decide to expand Medicaid, more burdens would be placed on hospitals, and he is skeptical that current funds would be able to sustain the program until 2019.

"We are gravely concerned about this legislation," Hawkins said. "This program has been majorly successful and helped us grow [trauma center] capacity across the state." 

Williamson County Justice of the Peace Edna Staudt joined the lawmakers in support of repealing the program. She says that the program denies citizens due process under the law and creates many problems for courts who must go after offenders.

“Our courtrooms are flooded, and our jails are becoming more filled with people who literally just don’t have the money to pay surcharges,” Staudt said.

Burnam said that the original intention of the program, to lower drunken driving offenses and fund emergency trauma centers, has fallen flat. He believes that the program has created an unwarranted “new class of criminals” who continue to drive after receiving fines because in a state that does not have an adequate public transportation system, they must break the law to get to work.

Burnam, who attempted to end the program in 2011, said that past attempts to repeal have passed in the House, but lost momentum before reaching the Senate. He is optimistic that this session lawmakers in both chambers will recognize that the program is “clearly not working for the people it was intended to address.”

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.