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Enough is enough." Drivers all over the state are echoing that sentiment as they learn more about the $300 surcharge already being levied on some traffic offenses. Proposed by Gov. George Pataki and passed by the state Legislature as part of this year's budget, the surcharge goes by the title "Driver Responsibility Assessment" (DRA). Ironically, those same three letters begin the word "draconian"--meaning excessively harsh and downright cruel.
Here's how the DRA works. When you accumulate six points on your license in an 18-month period, the state assesses you $100 a year for three years, for a total of $300. Every additional point over six adds another $25 to your annual assessment, or $75 to your three-year total.
The DRA comes in addition to fines and other so-called "ticket surcharges"--otherwise known as taxes on tickets. Essentially, it's a surcharge on top of a surcharge. Think of it as a super-surcharge or super-tax. "In essence, motorists will be paying three times for the same offense," notes John Corlett, the Club's director of Government Affairs. "Once for the fine, once for the ticket surcharge, and once for the assessment.
"And they will be paying the new assessment over the next three years," he added.
Not that traffic violations aren't expensive already. In 2003, the Legislature hiked fines for almost all tickets by 50 percent. For example, a minor speeding violation (less than 10 mph over the limit) now costs up to $150; a basic traffic infraction such as improper passing, up to $150 for the first violation. Commit two basic violations within an 18-month period, and the fine for the second jumps to as much as $300.
"We think that existing fines and license point totals are adequate to punish offenders and encourage compliance with the law," notes Corlett.
Taxes on Top of Taxes
But those fines don't include ticket surcharges, which also rose steeply in 2003. For instance, an equipment violation such as a burned-out tail light now sets you back another $30 per ticket; a moving violation, another $50. Back in 1991, the Legislature introduced surcharges as a temporary fix to balance the budget. Since then, they've proved harder to kill than kudzu. Rather than disappearing, they've just grown bigger. What's more, notes Corlett, "The revenue from these surcharges are used for state criminal justice programs having almost no connection to traffic safety or driving."
The DRA raises the stakes on driving violations to a whole new level. Suppose you're caught exceeding the speed limit by 5 mph twice within an 18-month period in New York City. Those two infractions--committed months apart--will wind up costing you $580 (two $90 fines, two $50 surcharges and one $300 DRA). And, ironically, the ticket tax total ($400) will run more than twice the fines themselves ($180).
No 'There' There
Where will the money from the super-surcharges go? No one really knows."It's called the Driver Responsibility Assessment Program, but there is no program," notes Corlett. "There's nothing. No rationale for the fee was included in any publicly available budget documents, and no one whom I talked to in the Legislature or at the Department of Motor Vehicles knows what the fee is for. Presumably, it will go into the general fund."
The effect of the new super-surcharge on driving behavior is equally up in the air. Proponents claim that high fines and even higher surcharges will force more drivers to toe the line and ultimately improve traffic safety. Corlett thinks that's highly unlikely. "AAA champions traffic safety but also advocates fair laws and sensible traffic safety legislation," he says. In fact, the new law may have several unintended consequences:
Slamming low-income drivers.The Legislature didn't bother to consider how the DRA will affect lower-income drivers. Like any other regressive tax, the super-surcharge hits hardest at folks who can least afford it. For a Wall Street hotshot driving a brand-new Beamer, an extra $300 for a traffic violation may seem like chump change. But for someone relying on a 10- or 12-year-old beater, the super-surcharge takes a huge bite out of the family budget.
Lower-income families already face skyrocketing gas prices and insurance premiums. Adding $300 to the cost of a second traffic violation represents another hardship.
Breeding unlicensed drivers.Many drivers would perhaps find the surcharges so onerous that they simply wouldn't pay--particularly if they regard the taxes as unfair in the first place. "Unpaid tickets trigger suspensions," notes Corlett. "There are already hundreds of thousands of unlicensed drivers on the road, and state officials have been struggling to address the problem."
Studies show nothing-left-to-lose drivers pose a real risk. According to a recent study sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 13.4 percent of the drivers involved in fatal collisions in New York were operating with a suspended or otherwise invalid license. Do we really want more unlicensed drivers on the road?
Clogging the courts.With the steep cost of a second traffic ticket, many drivers will opt to plead "not guilty" and take their chances in traffic courts. That will only add to the already heavy caseloads and lengthen delays for all motorists.
"Apparently," notes Corlett, "the Legislature gave no thought to any of these issues in the rush to generate money."
Points Against You
If you've received a ticket on or after Nov. 18, 2004, you are subject to the new Driver Responsibility Assessment. Bills are not scheduled to be mailed to drivers until this coming February.
Following are the number of points given for specific violations:
Reckless driving 5
Failed to stop for a school bus 5
Following too closely 4
Passing improperly, changing lanes unsafely, driving to the left of center, driving in the wrong direction 3
Failed to obey a traffic signal, a stop sign or a yield sign 3
Railroad crossing violation 3
Failed to yield the right-of-way 3
Passenger safety violation, including seat belts, child safety seats or passengers under the age of 16 3
Left the scene of an accident that includes property damage or the injury of a domestic animal 3
Other moving violations 2
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