BILL WOULD END CONTROVERSIAL DRIVER FINE PROGRAM
(AUSTIN) — Heavily criticized for the financial burden it places on those affected, the state's Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) would be repealed under a bill considered by the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday. Perhaps more familiarly known as the "points system", this program adds compounding penalties to drivers as they are convicted of traffic violations. A driver who commits a moving violation can get two "points" on their drivers license, and three if the violation results in a car crash. Points stay on a license for three years and if a license accrues six points, the driver is assessed a $100 surcharge at the end of the year. That fine goes up $25 for every additional point above six. There are additional surcharges for more serious violations: $1000 for a driver's first intoxicated driving conviction and increasing for each subsequent conviction. Driving with a suspended license or without insurance incurs $250 surcharges.
This program has been widely condemned for many sessions by citizens and lawmakers alike for putting unreasonable financial burdens on drivers, who can lose their license until they pay off all their DRP fines. For fifteen years, the Legislature has made various attempts to repeal the program, but the problem is that it helps to pay for trauma care at Texas hospitals, some $300 million per biennium. Lawmakers worry how that loss of money will impact the care of 130,000 people every year who need critical trauma services in the state, and so the program has remained. In the Senate Finance Committee Thursday, Houston Senator Joan Huffman offered a bill that will end the DRP while covering nearly all of the loss in revenue to the state trauma fund.
Her bill, SB 918, would repeal the program, remove existing points, and restore any licenses suspended solely due to non-payment. It would address the funding gap by creating additional one-time fines and fees for traffic offenses, rather than the compounding fine structure of the DRP. The state base traffic violation fee would rise from $30 to $50 and it doubles the fee that insurers add to each individual auto policy, from $2 to $4. Fines for DWI convictions would also go up, from $1000 to $3000 for a first offense, up to $6000 for driving with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit. Huffman says these new fines and fees will cover all but about $30 million of current DRP revenue.
Huffman told members that she intends to hold her bill and wait for the House version, authored by Richmond Representative John Zerwas, to make its way to the Senate. In the meantime, she pledged to work with Senators to address any concerns. Huffman said that she knows the solution isn't perfect, but something has to change. "I really think we need to get this done and we need to make it work," she said. "I know that not everyone will be happy, but we have to figure out a way to get this done."
Transportation Committee chair and Jacksonville Senator Robert Nichols praised the bill. He said his committee hears DRP repeal bills every session, but they never advance into law. "We need to pass this," he said. "These trauma funds have become addictive, but there are some real sufferings going on because of this program." He urged members to support the bill, even if the fund replacement isn't exactly perfect. Committee chair and Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson was more skeptical. She said it was the prospect of reliable funding for improved trauma care and the lives it would save that secured her vote on the bill that created the DRP in 2003. "If we do anything to change this, that trauma funding is going to be replaced," she said.
"If it doesn't, madam Chairman, it's my intention that it will not move forward," said Huffman.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 15 at 11 a.m.