Delegate Chris Saxman sent out this e-mail newsletter to help explain the recent changes in traffic fees and "Abuser Fees"... I grew up in New Jersey and this type of plan has been in use for decades and works well to address the problems of repeat offenders.
Many of you have contacted me recently about abuser fees. I hope the following information will answer your questions and address your concerns.
House Republicans championed the adoption of a comprehensive approach to improving Virginia's transportation network. Components of the Comprehensive Transportation Funding and Reform Act of 2007 (HB 3202) include addressing accountability and efficiency at VDOT, incorporating land use changes to prevent sprawl, injecting $3 billion in additional funding for important projects, and increasing highway safety by more appropriately assessing those drivers who repeatedly abuse the rules of the road.
Because the need to increase safety through monetary penalties on repeat offenders was recognized by members of both parties, abuser fees were a feature of transportation plans promoted by the Governor, the Senate, and the House. Already working to improve safety and increase revenues in other states (NJ, TX), abuser fees adopt the sensible assertion that those who commit crimes on the roads or who habitually violate traffic laws should pay more. Only those with serious criminal convictions or a massive amount of demerit points are subject to the fees. Because every driver starts with 0 demerits for abuser fee purposes on July 1, 2007, those who obey the laws or who have an occasional traffic infraction pay zero.
ØCivil penalties (a.k.a. "abuser fees") are targeted at chronic and dangerous drivers - the estimated 2.5% of those most likely to cause traffic accidents and congestion. These bad driversare estimated to be responsible for more than one quarter of all congestion on Virginia roadways.
Ø The basic premise of the transportation abuser fee is that Virginia's most dangerous drivers should pay their fair share for safety improvements to our roadways rather than the general public. The possibility of being assessed these fees is meant to serve as a deterrent to unsafe driving.
Ø The abuser fees have wide, bi-partisan support as they were part of numerous transportation plans advanced by the legislature and Governor Kaine. Also, the Attorney General's Office has not found reason to question the constitutionality of any aspect of the abuser fee.
Ø There are two ways the "abuser fees" can be assessed.
o Based on Demerit Points - Annual fee assessed for having 8 or more demerit points against your license. $100 fee for 8 points increasing by $75 with each additional point. This penalizes chronically bad drivers. Here is URL for a DMV primer on demerit points that is very helpful:http://www.dmv.state.va.us/webdoc/citizen/drivers/points_you.asp
o Based on Traffic Offense - Three year annual fee based on seriousness of offense. Only applies to certain motor vehicle-related or driving felonies and misdemeanors. Penalizes dangerous drivers.
Ø The abusive driver fee is just that - a variable registration fee that is higher for bad drivers. Registration fees are assessed on a Virginian's registered vehicle, not on out of state drivers. While a component of it is charged based on traffic offenses, it is not a criminal fine (which could be applied to out of state drivers) but an increased registration fee based on the increased likelihood that a person is adding to roadway costs by unsafe driving as evidenced by traffic offenses.
Ø The overwhelming majority of these crimes are felonies or misdemeanors involving the consumption of alcohol or illegal drugs while driving, reckless driving, vehicular homicide, and driving after being declared an habitual offender or driving on a revoked license. For the civil remediation fees to be assessed, the offender has to be found guilty of those crimes, not just charged with them - meaning the judge could lower the charge to avoid the assessment of the fees.
Ø Unless you commit a crime on the highway of the level that is punishable by jail time, or if you rack up a bunch of points (eg. the equivalent of four major tickets in one year) you won't pay anything. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Virginia's drivers - more than 97% - will NOT have to pay these higher fees.
Ø Many of the perceived "lesser crimes" defined in Code as reckless driving are commonly ticketed in combination with other reckless driving offenses (i.e., the officer has the option to include "not signaling" as reckless driving if the offender also is committing another class 1 misdemeanor.) While the Court has no ability to suspend fees if a person were to be convicted of a qualifying offense, an officer does not have to charge a person with reckless driving for all activities and depending on the nature of the situation, can charge them with lesser offenses.
Ø Some may have seen a sensationalized and inaccurate account on the blogs at TheNewspaper.com, which has served as the basis for e-mails to several offices recently. In one (false) example, it says going 15 MPH over the speed limit would net an offender a $3,550 ticket. Here are the facts:
o A 15 mph over ticket is a traffic ticket, not a reckless. It carries -4 points. So, the person would need to get another one to be at -8 and then the "demerit point-based" fee would be $100, NOT $3,500. But, if the person went on-line and took a safe driving course, he/she would get +5 and the fee would then be ZERO. Remember: every Virginia driver starts off with 0 points, and gets +1 point each year for good driving up to +5. So, again using the example above, a driver would really need to have 13 demerit points or more - which is equivalent to 4 moving violations in one year, definitely NOT a safe driving record - for the fee to even apply.
o Also, $2,500 is the maximum fine (not what's typically meted out) that a judge can levy for reckless driving under existing law - something that was not changed by the Abuser Fee bill.
o The Reckless Driving Article of the Code of Virginia is a law that can be traced back to pre-1950. It says that failing to use a turn signal is "reckless." After checking with an attorney who handles thousands of cases like this who has been in the courtroom for 19 years (three years as a traffic court prosecutor), he said he has NEVER seen anyone charged with "reckless" under that code section. This anachronism undoubtedly will be fixed next year.
Ø The only role of the court is as a collection agent since they are already collecting criminal fines for these same offenses. Their role was one of convenience and to reduce administration costs. As such, non-payment results in no cost to the Commonwealth. Collection activities are likely to be handled by an outside agent, with the Commonwealth retaining the majority of the revenues collected.
Ø Why are the Abuser Fees set up this way?
o Under the Virginia State Constitution, all fines are to be deposited into the Literary Fund for school construction. Thus, to ensure that these funds would be available for transportation, they were made into variable registration fees on bad drivers. This is why they do not apply to out of state residents. Registration fees are only charged to Virginians.
o The original intention was to have the abuser fees collected entirely by DMV. But, DMV was concerned about collection procedures, so a compromise was reached whereby the Court would serve as the collection agent for the first year's fee, with DMV collecting second & third year fees.
Ø The fees assessed based on the number of demerit points can be avoided by taking a driver's training course to earn 5 positive points. Points on one's license prior to convictions on July 1, 2007 are NOT counted for the demerit based abuser fee.
Ø Does this mean Virginia residents will have to pay more than illegal aliens?
o The short and simple answer is "no."
o Illegal aliens cannot lawfully obtain driver's licenses in Virginia, thanks to the Republicans in the House and Senate who were the first in the nation to enact a law in 2002 that banned such practices. Also, there is no "international driver's license" that is valid in Virginia.
o An illegal alien in Virginia driving on his/her country's license would have to say he/she is not a resident of Virginia, admitting their unauthorized status. Otherwise, if they are Virginia residents and do not have a Virginia license (no 60 day free period for persons with foreign driver's licenses who move to Virginia), they are driving without a license, which is a criminal misdemeanor.
o If an illegal somehow has a valid Virginia license, then he/she would be charged with the same charge that any Virginia resident would. However, they hopefully would be deported.
Ø Research indicates - from a variety of "national studies" as well as a Virginia Transportation Research Council study presented at the 2005 Virginia Fall Conference on Transportation - that more than 25% of all congestion is caused by traffic incidents. A large proportion of these incidents are caused by unsafe driving - such as reckless and aggressive driving, DUI, etc. By charging those who commit those offenses, and thus increase congestion on the roadways, the state is charging those citizens - who make our transportation system more congested and infrastructure repair and construction more costly - a fair and proportionate share of those costs. The Kaine Administration estimates that the abuser fee will generate approximately $65 million each year.
Ø The abuser fees are a part of the Comprehensive Transportation Funding and Reform Act of 2007, which raises over $1.2 billion annually for improvements to highways, including needed improvements in each of the 9 transportation districts in Virginia. The landmark statute also ties local land use decisions to transportation and brings much-needed reforms and streamlining to the operations of VDOT. The Act was a compromise between those who wanted to avoid a statewide increase on income, sales, gas or property taxes, while providing needed funding for Virginia transportation by using state budget surpluses, through the issuance of bonds, and through assessing abuser fees that the average citizen can avoid by obeying the law.
Please let me know if you have any further questions or concerns.