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Traffic Surcharge Program Straps Some Texas Drivers

For years, critics have called for an end to the Driver Responsibility Program. But because the program brings in millions of dollars every year, it has proved stubbornly hard to kill.

Charles Farmer, a parking lot painter in the Austin area, had his driver's license suspended after missing surcharge payments under Texas' Driver Responsibility Program.

When Charles Farmer was pulled over for turning without signaling last Thanksgiving morning, he learned that his license had been suspended for failing to pay surcharges on traffic tickets he had already paid. Shocked, Farmer took out his phone and paid the surcharges from the side of the road.

“I didn’t even know what it was, but I paid it,” he said. “I was thinking, okay, they’ll give me back my driver’s license.”

Not quite. A week later, Farmer got another six-month suspension — this time, for driving on the suspended license.

Farmer had discovered Texas’ Driver Responsibility Program, which assesses surcharges on certain traffic offenses — most commonly driving without insurance or without a valid license — on top of the original penalty. The program began in 2003 and is run by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Its surcharges, which are levied once a year for three years, range from $100 for accumulation of traffic tickets to up to $2,000 per year for drunken driving. Failure to pay can result in a suspended license.

For years, critics have called for an end to the program, arguing that it traps poor and working-class Texans in a cycle of missed payments and suspended licenses.

“Where they really get caught is, they’ll let you make installment payments to pay off your surcharges,” said Jean Spradling Hughes, a Harris County criminal court judge. “Well, the first installment payment you miss, your license is suspended again. And if you don’t realize or you forgot, and you get stopped, and you get another conviction, then guess what: Your license is going to be suspended for a year, and you’re going to have another three years of surcharges on top of that.”

It is hard to find people who disagree. But because the program brings in millions of dollars every year, it has proved stubbornly hard to get rid of. The program was billed as a way to encourage safe driving and raise funds for trauma centers by charging the people who supposedly cause the most accidents. 

At a hearing of the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety earlier this month, the chairman, Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, was frank about the chances of scrapping the program.

“Here’s the reality: We’re the government,” he said. “We’re not going to give up the money.”

In an interview, Pickett said he would like to end the program, but that proposals to replace the money it raises have almost no chance of passing the Legislature.

Instead, he is working on legislation to make the program less harsh without losing revenue. One possibility is to lower the fee amounts under the presumption that compliance would go up. Another is to switch to one-year surcharges, he said, because many people pay the first year without realizing more bills are coming.

Farmer’s experience illustrates some common complaints about the program. The Liberty Hill resident said he had no idea he owed surcharges for accumulating speeding tickets because he did not live at the address on his driver’s license, which is where the DPS mails all notices. After he failed to pay, his license was automatically suspended, again without his knowledge. So Farmer, who paints and maintains parking lots and drives about 90,000 miles annually between job sites, did not find out about it until he was already driving with a suspended license. That offense automatically triggers a second suspension.

Farmer could afford to pay the surcharges and to hire a lawyer to help him get an occupational driver’s license, which allows him to drive to and from work during certain hours. Those who cannot often have no choice but to keep driving, running the risk of jail time if they are caught, said Edna Staudt, a Williamson County justice of the peace.

“They keep on driving, they have to feed their families, they have to pay their rent, they have to work,” she said at the House hearing earlier this month. “That’s a system that you have the ability to eliminate.” 

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