State Senate Votes to Ease Charges on Texas DWI

Austin, Texas – The Senate approved a measure that would change the troubled Texas Driver Responsibility Program. Currently surcharges as high as $6000 are applied to those convicted of driving while intoxicated in Texas and other driving violations. The charges are in addition to regular fines, and the financial burden has lead to more than one million motorists being unable or unwilling to pay them.

The bill’s author, Senator Eliot Shapleigh, originally called for scrapping the program in its entirety. Negotiations lead to a compromise allowing judges to lower the surcharge based on the case and barring the state from assessing students and the indigent. The legislation also allows motorists to earn credit toward satisfying the surcharge for each year they have no additional traffic violations.

Sen. Shapleigh called the surcharges ‘punitive fines’ to help the state balance its budget. The Texas Driver Responsibility Program was passed in 2003 when the state was facing a $10 billion gap in revenue. The intent claimed at the time was to make the fines so large that it would deter people from speeding, driving recklessly and driving under the influence. The biggest surcharge was levied against those convicted of drunk driving in Texas – $1000 each year for three years and $2000 each year for those with a blood-alcohol content in excess of .16%. The funds generated would go toward highway construction and trauma care. In practice, the percentage for highway funds has been redirected to the state’s general fund and very little money has been spent on medical infrastructure. Of the 1.6 million motorists hit with the surcharge, nearly 1.1 million have not paid what now amounts to nearly $900 million.

A report from the Texas Department of Public Safety indicates that only 25% of those charged with failure to have a valid license paid the fine. 36 percent of those charged with Texas DWI paid. In 2007 the Texas legislature granted partial amnesty and initiated an incentive program for motorists to be in compliance. The DPS has increased its efforts to collect the surcharge, even going to the extent of hiring a collection agency.

The proposed legislation revamping the Driver Responsibility Program was passed by the state Senate by a vote of 23-5.

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