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Sneaky Hidden Traffic Fees: How States Are Gouging Citizens

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We don’t need to read the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest report on unemployment rates to know what it’ll say—Americans need jobs. We’re struggling to make ends meet, and it doesn’t help that those in charge of entire states aren’t faring any better. States are deep in debt and looking to their citizens to fill in the gaps via extra fees you might never see coming unless you do a little research.


Traffic Penalty Assessment Fees
Picture this—you’re driving along, going a little above the speed limit, when red and blue lights flash menacingly in the rearview mirror. Before you know it, a cop’s passing a slip through the window and you’re wondering where the money’s going to come from to pay for the ticket. Fast-forward to a few weeks later, and you’re even more freaked out because the original cost has skyrocketed due to “penalty assessment fees.” These are tacked on to all fines and legal infractions by over thirty U.S. states to help fund courthouse- and jail-construction projects, DNA identification tests, emergency medical funds, and a host of other county and statewide issues.

Traffic Ticket

The cost varies from state to state, but in California, where the idea of penalty assessment fees was born more than forty-five years ago (according to a 2006 California Research Bureau paper), people pay $26 for every $10 of the original fine. The CRB’s paper details that the fees initially went toward state schools and were $1 for every $20 charged. Now, California more than doubles the original fine and the money goes toward building jails. And unless you’re familiar with civil fees and penal codes, you probably don’t realize that the $100 ticket for running a red light will turn into $436 by the time the bill comes in the mail, at least in Sacramento County.

Driver Responsibility Fees
A few states also employ another tactic when it comes to getting extra money from people. Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Texas all use the Driver Responsibility Program, which fines people who have a certain point total on their licenses (at least six or seven, depending on the state) or commit crimes like driving under the influence or driving with expired insurance. In New York, which enacted the program in 2004, having six points on one’s license—which are earned by speeding, not turning correctly, and so forth—over eighteen months costs an extra $300 in fines. The price goes up by $25 for every additional point incurred. If you get any more points in the three-year period (it’s $100 per year), $75 per new point is tacked on to the bill.

Traffic violations involving alcohol or drugs are treated more severely, requiring a payment of $250, at minimum, for a total of three years after the incident. States enforcing the Driver Responsibility Program stand to make millions of dollars on the fees they levy. Virginia tried to do something similar with “civil remedial fees” as a way to fund road-improvement projects, but Virginians balked at the idea of paying up to $3,000 in fees, and the law was repealed.

What to Know Before You Go
It would be one thing if these extra charges brought about a marked improvement in traffic safety or helped balance the budget significantly, but they haven’t really done either. States are still amassing huge amounts of debt because many can’t afford to pay the high fines. In Michigan, for example, the effectiveness of the harsh penalties on driving habits hasn’t been proven, which has caused some lawmakers to speak out against them.

Certainly, drivers should be penalized for breaking the rules of the road, and there’s no reason why that money shouldn’t go toward state purposes. But should going one to fifteen miles over the speed limit in California cost someone $214? Should a onetime infraction require payment for years on end? Perhaps it might seem more justified if the money were being managed properly, but given the dire conditions of these states, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The best course of action is knowing what potential fees lie ahead when you get behind the wheel. Check county and state Web sites (like this one, for Sacramento County, California) for more information. If sticker shock’s what it takes to keep you from driving recklessly, that’ll definitely do the trick.


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