2/1/2008Opinion: Abuser Fee Repeal Will Not End Abuse of Motorists
An editorial that argues that the repeal of the abusive driver fees in Virginia is not enough.
This week Virginia legislators continued to fight amongst themselves over which member could take most credit for the repeal of the unpopular abusive driver fees. Both the House of Delegates and the state Senate approved measures canceling the speeding ticket tax with only a dispute about how to refund the fees already collected delaying the repeal's enactment. A repeal with a refund might seem like a complete victory for motorists, but it leaves them no better off than they were before last July.
That's because the Commonwealth of Virginia has no intention of ending its abuse of motorists, says Bryan Ault, the 28-year-old Alexandria motorist whose online petition served as a rallying point for fee opponents. A total of 177,821 voters took the time to sign the page which delivered an unmistakable message to legislators.
"The 'abuser fees' were a symptom of a larger problem," Ault told us. "I'm happy that the people of Virginia spoke out against them and got them repealed. It will be much more difficult to rally public support to change some of the other flaws in the driving laws."
Fixing Virginia's flawed traffic code is difficult for one reason: it generates too much money. State and local governments have come to see the motorist as nothing more than an easy source of quick cash. Traffic court is a big money-maker for the state. Including all revenue sources, general district courts collected a grand total of $246,552,351, with a net profit of $173,738,097, nearly triple the amount anticipated from the abuser fees. In 2005, Virginia courts considered 776,045 alleged traffic infraction and 424,936 traffic misdemeanor cases.
The one service that the ticket tax did for the public was to expose a dirty little secret. After all, Michigan, New Jersey and Texas have each implemented their own traffic ticket taxes, but none of these programs -- as bad as they are -- have yet drawn anywhere near the level of outrage as Virginia's.
"If the 'abuser fees' truly applied only to behavior that was really abusive and reckless, there would not have been so much backlash," Ault explained.
While the Richmond politicians behind the fees swore only "the worst drivers" would ever have to pay them, we quickly learned otherwise. Abuser driver fees were given to people who were not even driving. Ask the bicyclist charged $1050 while riding an 18-speed Huffy. Ask the man charged $2750 for DUI -- on a riding lawnmower. As the Joint Commission on Transportation Accountability proved, speeders were the most likely of anyone charged to pay the abuser fees. This made speeders the number one target.
Each year Virginia charges 30,934 speeding motorists with "reckless driving," a serious first degree misdemeanor crime that carries a punishment of up to one full year in jail and a $2500 fine. It sounds like an appropriate penalty for a terrible offense. The truth, however, is that most of these "criminals" were driving with the flow of traffic. Take Interstate 85, for example, where the speed limit is 70 MPH. If you're accused of exceeding that limit by more than 10 MPH on this highway, you are automatically guilty of reckless driving. On the interstates with 65 MPH speed limits, driving just 15 MPH over brings the same fine and potential for jail time. Driving the same speed on equivalent roads, Interstates 10 and 20 in Texas, is entirely legal.
Even though the fees may still be gone, this reckless statute remains. Class 5 and 6 felonies in Virginia carry exactly the same monetary penalty as driving 10 MPH over the limit in a 70 zone. That means the motorist could end up paying more than a real criminal found guilty of abduction; extortion; forgery; voluntary manslaughter; possession of a radiological agent with intent to harm; fencing stolen property; shooting a gun in a building or car; taking indecent liberties with children; or distributing child pornography. (Virginia Code Sections 18.2-47; 18.2-35; 18.2-172; 18.2-52.1; 18.2-59; 18.2-108.01; 18.2-286.1; 18.2-370 and 18.2-374.1)
It would be one thing if the money raised from the abuser fees and the reckless driving charges went to projects that would make life better for motorists. The General Assembly, however, adds insult to injury by devoting any new revenue raised to anything but road improvements.
For example, Virginia has already spent $140 million planning a rail system to bring non-motorists to the Dulles airport at a subsidized price. The full cost of this project, $5 billion, saps away funds that could cut congestion in the state by nearly two-thirds. Using construction cost data from the Florida Department of Transportation, we found that the same amount of money could instead be used to construct between 400 and 670 miles of brand new six-lane interstate highway -- or it could be used to add lane capacity to existing roads. Improvement of this kind is desperately needed.
Until the public demands new priorities and an elimination of the reckless speeding statute, Virginia motorists will continue to serve as cash cows for the tax collectors.