Good intentions, but bad results: That is the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) in a nutshell. Started in 2003 to alleviate a $9.9 billion state budget shortfall, the program was intended to close this fiscal gap and to encourage safer driving. Unfortunately, what began with good intentions has not yielded satisfactory results.
The program works like this: Drivers who commit certain moving violations accrue points. If enough points accrue, then drivers are hit with a surcharge on top of the fines and fees already doled out until they are removed from the driver’s license (each point stays on for three years). Other higher-level offenses carry steep fines; up to $2,000 each year for three years. If the fines are not paid on time, the driver’s license will be suspended.
However, no evidence suggests Texas roads are safer. In fact, DUI-related driving crashes (a violation hit hard by DRP fines) resulting in death have increased since the program’s inception. Additionally, the DRP has placed many on the road with no insurance, because the program has left over 1.2 million drivers without a license.
With thousands of dollars in surcharges and late fees piling up, many are left with the option of choosing to risk driving to get to work without a license or lose the means to pay these surcharges off. Bad results.
Many legislators from across party lines have expressed strong interest to remove the program entirely. Texas is one of only three states (New Jersey and New York being the other two) that operate a similar program.
During an interim hearing in January addressing the DRP, the Texas Senate Transportation Committee was in near consensus that major reforms or outright removal is necessary. However, efforts to repeal the program have been unsuccessful, and for an important reason: Part of the money goes toward funding trauma hospitals’ uncompensated care. These are costs associated with uninsured medical fees in emergency situations. Although only a portion of the actual DRP fines ever reaches the trauma care fund, it has been enough to railroad reform. Another well-intentioned policy enactment that has enabled this program to exist.
It is unlikely that the Legislature would remove the funding mechanism from the DRP for trauma centers without finding an alternative source. Fortunately, the trauma fund is not exclusively funded by DRP surcharges.
In fiscal year 2015, three separate fines and fees for certain moving violations provided $30 million for uncompensated trauma care, while $74 million came from DRP surcharges.
However, only about half of this money, $54 million, ever reached the trauma care fund, with the rest going toward balancing the budget. This only amounts to about 17 percent of all uncompensated care in Texas.
By statute, only a small portion of these three additional traffic fines is dedicated to the trauma care fund. Minor adjustments to these funding formulas, as well as a requirement that money dedicated to uncompensated trauma care costs cannot be moved to the general revenue fund should easily make up the loss from removal of the DRP surcharges.
Milton Friedman once said “one of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” The DRP began as a way to keep Texas drivers safer and create a funding stream for a worthy cause.
It is clear, however, that the program has failed on its good intentions and has taken from a significant number of Texans their means to a livelihood.
Rather than continuing this failed approach due to the slight benefit that has come out of it, alternative solutions to provide money to trauma centers should be investigated. In the coming year, we urge legislators to look at alternative funding mechanisms, and make the DRP a thing of the past.
Glod is an attorney with the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.