Bad driver program called 'Debtor's Prison'

A program designed to stop bad driving habits, while helping hospitals, is under fire. A hearing was held Wednesday morning at the State Capitol that may lead to the repeal of the "Texas Driver Responsibility Program."

Cracking down on drunk driving was a big justification in creating the Texas Driver Responsibility Program in 2003. It requires convicted traffic offenders to pay an annual surcharge, on top of court fines and penalties, in order to keep their Driver’s License.

What originally sounded like a good idea to Texas lawmakers who voted for it more than a decade ago, was condemned Wednesday morning by practically every member of the Senate Transportation committee. Senator Sylvia Garcia (D) Houston and Senator Don Huffines ( R ) Dallas, lead the bipartisan charge.

"You know it just makes poor people, poorer,” said Senator Garcia.

Senator Huffines described the program as a debtor’s prison.

"We are making a permanent underclass here."

DPS Program managers, who testified before the committee said the program currently has 1.8 million active cases. Almost $4 billion has been billed since it began in 2003, with only $1.5 billion collected. Critics argued those in the program can get trapped by additional fines, which acts like quicksand. 

Senator Lois Kolkhorst ( R ) Brenham pointed out there is no data showing the program has been a deterrent to bad driving behavior, and Harris County Judge Jean Spradling Hughes testified the program actually does the opposite.

"This law has not enhanced public safety, in fact it has put it in dire straits,” said Judge Spradling Hughes.

Even the Texas Association of Business has come out against the program.

"I think it is also a work force issue. You know if you want to eat, which most of us do, you got to work, and to work you've got to drive, in most all cases, so if you want to have your employees drive legally on our streets you shouldn't be taking their driver’s license away because they can’t pay the additional fines that are levied on them,” said TAB President Bill Hammond.

Half of the money raised goes into the State General Fund; the other half goes to Hospital Trauma Centers. It was noted during the hearing that since the fund was created, 80 new Trauma Centers have opened up in Texas.

According to the Texas Hospital Association; each year about $300 million in uncompensated trauma care is provided across the state. The most that program has provided in one year was $67-million, despite that the industry claims it does offset losses.

"We really hear the cries all across the state, the program itself has problems it needs to be revamped, it needs to be restructured, our main concern and our main purpose of being here is if you redo the program, or take the program away please consider how vital the funding is to the Trauma hospitals across the state we need this money,” said Glenn Robinson with the Texas Hospital Association.

Senator Rodney Ellis ( D) Houston said he appreciated Robinson’s argument but was not convinced the program should be saved.

"At some point you go to the moral issue, and this program in immoral,” said Senator Rodney Ellis ( D ) Houston.

With that in mind Committee Chairman Robert Nichols ( R ) Jacksonville, directed managers to find ways to redesign the program and said he wants a list of recommendations by the end of March.

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