Texas lawmakers have begun to take a critical look at the controversial Driver Responsibility Program, which has been described by some as a modern-day debtor’s prison.
Some lawmakers say it’s time to get rid of the program that was enacted in 2003 to use fines and surcharges against drivers for specific offenses to fund Texas trauma centers. While the law had good intentions, it has also created a significant burden on more than 1 million drivers.
As of 2017, 1.2 million drivers in Texas are unable to drive or are driving illegally after being unable to pay the multi-year surcharges and fees under the program.
In one example raised by policy attorney Elizabeth Henneke, a 67-year-old woman has paid almost $25,000, spent four week-long stays in jail, lost her license, and become homeless due to a DWI charge in 2004 and the state’s surcharge program. According to Henneke, the woman went through a multi-step process in which she faced surcharges and fines and lost her license for being unable to keep up with the charges. She then faced additional surcharges and fines when she drove without a license.
Williamson County Justice of the Peace Edna Staudt has asked for the program to be ended after watching families go through financial and emotional devastation. High surcharges and license suspension can make it difficult for Texans to keep their job and support their families.
Health officials and doctors, meanwhile, have called on Texas lawmakers to keep the program to ensure funding in an already difficult budget year. According to Raj Gandhi, a trauma surgeon at John Peter Smith Hospital and the acting vice chair of Texas EMS Trauma & Acute Care Foundation, dozens of hospitals in the state have been designated as trauma centers since the start of the program.
Only four other states have similar programs but two — Michigan and Virginia — are phasing their programs out.
Points and Surcharges Under the Driver Responsibility Program
Under the Driver Responsibility Act, Texas assigns points to Class C traffic violations. When a driver accumulates 6 or more points within a 3-year period, surcharges are added. These points stay on a driver’s record for 3 years.
A regular moving violation will add 2 points to a driving record. A violation that causes an accident adds 3 points.
Typically, drivers pay a $100 surcharge for the first 6 points and an additional $25 for each additional point. The surcharge is due every year the driver has 6+ points.
Some surcharges are very expensive, however. A first DWI conviction comes with a $1,000 annual surcharge but the surcharge increases to $2,000 for driving with a BAC of 0.16 or higher.
When drivers get a surcharge, they receive a notice in the mail. Drivers then have 30 days to pay the surcharge or have their license suspended.